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Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Iceland hot on information freedom

Wikileaks founder, Australian Julian Assange, thought to be sitting on a pile of unpublished classified material about Iraq and Afghanistan, has good reason to avoid the US according to the Washington Post, but spoke to a conference this week in Brussels, and has spent large chunks of time in Iceland recently.

Where Iceland's parliament, the Altingi, voted last week to task government with finding ways to increase information freedom and to make Iceland a leader in freedom of expression.The detail (in English) of what passed is a bit hard to come by but the Icelandic Modern Media Initiative, or IMMI is "intended to make Iceland an attractive environment for the registration and operation of international press organizations, new media start-ups, human rights groups and internet data centers. It promises to strengthen our democracy through the power of transparency and to promote the nation's international standing and economy."

Here is the summary of what was proposed which includes protection of journalist sources, whistleblower protection, communications protection, limiting prior restraint on publication, what they call process protection, history protection, and libel tourism protection, and the creation of the Icelandic Prize for Freedom of Expression. And bringing Iceland's Freedom of Information Act into line with the Council of Europe convention and "good and modern elements in the FOI laws of Estonia, Scotland, the UK and Norway." Some of this sounds as if they are coming from behind, but here's the FOI plan:

"The Icelandic Freedom of Information law (Upplýsingalög, 50/1996) was enacted in 1996 and has since been amended six times to various degrees. It is mostly modeled after the Danish and Norwegian laws from 1970. The current Icelandic FOI law does not conform to CoE convention, and it does not match the standards set in the Aarhus treaty for environmental information. This presents the opportunity to create maximum transparency by means of of a newer, better and more internationally compliant Icelandic FOI law.
Any new framing of Icelandic FOI law should only be done after taking a close look at the 2009 CoE and OAS recommendations as well as particularly good and modern elements in the FOI laws of Estonia, Scotland, the UK and Norway. The standards with regard to speedy response, a limited number of exemption and rapid access to administrative complaint procedures from the environmental Aarhus treaty ought to be the standard for all information.

It may make sense to make sure this law applies to all government bodies and all non government entities operating on behalf of the government, as well as entities that fulfill a public concession/task paid from public funds. The extent to which businesses can prevent the release of documents that concern them should be strictly limited. The current act does not apply to anything covered by the public administration law, international agreements, etc. The limitation regarding public administration law is by far the most far-reaching of the current limitations, and would likely need to be reconsidered.
 There currently exists no central registry of documents held by government bodies, and there is no standardized FOI document request form. One feature that may add greater transparency is an actively internet-published central register of all documents held (as opposed to merely produced) by an institution. At the same time document access should be possible by subject, requesters should not need to know of the existence of a document.
Framers of a new Icelandic FOI law should consider making sure the law applies to classic [paper] and modern [digital] documents in the same way. One might also want to consider raising the level of the administrative complaint to the more internationally compliant form of an information commissioner with binding execution and sanction power. Having such a serious complaint procedure will reduce the workload of the court because it is expected that fewer requesters will go to court after the complaint at the information commissioner.

It would be best if limitations on the release of documents were never absolute and the public interest should always be weighed as well. Privacy-related limitations should not be applicable to any work-related information. Exemptions should expire in as brief a time as is reasonable. One could consider a regime under which the fact that any exemptions were used to successfully prevent release of a document would be published on the internet immediately and where all such exempted documents would automatically published after the expiry of the exemption.

As a general rule documents released should be made available online for all citizens to access. This will increase transparency, prevent requests from being filed more than once and will invite government bodies to disclose documents pro-actively. The law should be based on the notion that government documents are in principle public unless an exceptional reason prevents publication."

1 comment:

  1. Anonymous10:52 pm

    Start leaking people, let's see more Australian documents here