Freedom of Information in the Digital Age
Throughout history, selective modes of communication have been used to foster and grow discourse throughout individual and societal spheres of influence. The spoken word provided the means for discussion on a dominantly local level; civic leaders and grand orators raised a booming voice to religious, economic, and systemic issues and struggles. As time passed and technology progressed, the means and abilities for civil discourse and participation were exponentially expanded with the invention of the printing press. Representing a critical juncture in society, the printing press, as a medium for communication, allowed the individual to voice opinions, reason, and struggles on a national and international scale. Until modern history, the printed word reigned supreme as a stage for civil discussion. As society progressed throughout history, so did the mediums for communication and in turn, the lengths to which a thought could travel. Technological innovation in the twentieth century allowed for the realization of a new critical juncture in individual and societal civil discourse and engagement-the internet.
As a medium for communication, the internet has arguably had one of the greatest impacts in human history. The modern internet, or World Wide Web as championed by Tim Berners-Lee, has allowed for human communication to reach a global scale. In addition, the invention of the World Wide Web allowed for communication on a rapid scale not seen since the more localized spoken word. The growth of this medium conjointly saw a growth in civil discourse as it is related to government standards, political structures, and overall societal dilemmas. Although from a technical standpoint, the internet and World Wide Web exist as independent and universal structures, neither are arguably entirely free or independent from specific government or societal constraints. Different nations, such as the United States or China, have varying levels of internet freedom which allow for a spectrum of individual mobility, transparency, and discourse. In contrast to government facilitated restrictions, certain independent institutions and internet channels have risen and developed to offer a counter to centralized schemes of internet freedom and have helped to realize a sense of universal internet freedom.
According to the independent watchdog organization Freedom on the Net, in 2013 the United States ranked 4th globally on a scale of overall internet freedom. The scales of internet freedom denoted in this ranking are obstacles to access, limits on content, and violations of user rights (Freedom on the Net, 2013). In relation to overall internet freedom, one aspect of the United States internet scheme which allows for increased government transparency, societal discourse, and overall internet freedom is the Freedom and Information Act. Signed into legislation in 1966 and amended most recently in 2014, the Freedom of Information Act allows for an unprecedented level of communication and transparency within United States politics and government structures. The Freedom of Information Act works to allow individual and public access to previously undisclosed or classified documents within the executive branch of the United States government. With the most recent Freedom of Information Act Oversight and Implementation Act of 2014, a formal government website was created to help facilitate and monitor requests of information. Although the Freedom of Information Act creates a sphere of public to government transparency, specific exemptions exist which prevent a universal instantiation of transparency. Specifically noted and prevalent exemptions include: “[information] specifically authorized under criteria established by an Executive order to be kept secret in the interest of national defense or foreign policy, trade secrets and commercial or financial information obtained from a person and privileged or confidential, and personnel and medical files and similar files the disclosure of which would constitute a clearly unwarranted invasion of personal privacy” (United States Congress, 2009). These prominent exemptions to the outstanding Freedom of Information Act work to limit universal freedom and transparency within the United States government, specifically within government department such as the Central Intelligence Agency, National Security Agency, and the United States State Department
In contrast to the United States, Freedom on the Net in 2013 ranked China 3rd from last on a scale of internet freedom denoting obstacles to access, limits on content, and violations of user rights. The two countries deemed to have less internet freedom than China are Cuba and Iran. With historic legislation in 2008, China attempted to move closer to the United States on the spectrum of internet freedom and government transparency through the Regulations of the People’s Republic of China on Open Government Information Act. This Act allowed for the possible disclosure of information related to: “information that involves the vital interests of citizens, legal persons or other organizations, information that shows the structure, function and working procedures of and other matters relating to the administrative agency, and information that needs to be extensively known or participated in by the general public” (State Council, 2007). Although the Act as a piece of formal legislation advocated for increased transparency within the Chinese government, results demonstrated a predictable stagnation of any real effects. A study by Peking University related to this Act and the contents and timeliness of received information gave only 41% of provincial-level government departments a passing grade. Moreover and importantly, the study gave only 17% of central government departments a passing grade. These results demonstrate an increasingly limited scope of internet freedom and government transparency within China (Horsley, 2010).
Demonstrations and examples of legislation pertaining to freedom of information and internet freedom in the United States and China only serve to exemplify the results and consequences of centralized structures. As a centralized medium, government constructs act as agenda setters for what information can and should be known by the public. As such, there still exists varying levels of secrecy which serve to constrain true internet freedom and freedom of information for society. In contrast to centralized mediums, certain decentralized mediums exist which serve to provide a global audience with the means for universal internet freedom and access to information. In particular, WikiLeaks and systems of peer-to-peer networking allow for a universal level of internet freedom which transcends government constraints. WikiLeaks and peer-to-peer networking largely operate based upon user-generated content and civil participation on the internet. Through whistleblowers and other means for access, WikiLeaks had released thousands of controversial and classified documents which implicate varying levels of government and corporate wrongdoings. As demonstrated through leaks pertaining to the United States involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan, WikiLeaks has worked to forcefully create a transparent and culpable society though an uncensored and fully decentralized structure. (Hood, 2011). In addition to WikiLeaks, internet peer-to-peer software and websites such as BitTorrent and The Pirate Bay have also helped created a sense of universal internet freedom. These internet peer-to-peer structures, although widely used for uploading and downloading illegal entertainment content, function to allow the theoretical dissemination of unlimited scopes of information and data; especially pertaining to government, political, and societal doings (Hoffman, 2013). WikiLeaks and various peer-to-peer networking resources have arguably had the consequence of advocating democracy and change in formerly restrictive spheres such as the Middle East; as demonstrated through influence in the Arab Spring.
When examining issues of internet freedom in relation to government constructs and decentralized mediums, it is necessary to hypothesize the ethics and utility of either structures. From a consequential standpoint, constrained internet freedom and universal internet freedom can theoretically have both positive and negative results. From the stance of overall net gain for society, universal internet freedom may have the result of advocating for positive change and increased innovations in democratic structures. Through means such as WikiLeaks and other peer-to-peer networking sites, universal internet freedom can force changes in government and political transparency. Through increased transparency in preexisting democratic structures, governments would be encouraged to act solely out of the net good for the individual citizen and society as a whole. In addition, universal freedom through decentralized structures could help encourage societal and political change in countries which fall below the ideal spectrum for democratic ideologies. Conversely, structures of universal internet freedom and transparency may lead to the negative consequence of decreased trust in government and political constructs. Due to an uncensored stream of information and data provided through WikiLeaks or other peer-to-peer resources, revelations may cause individual feelings of alienation and decreased autonomy which could lead to decreases in civil participation and engagement (Margetts, 2011). When examining the theoretical nature of a truly universal internet freedom, it is paramount to examine the utility of such an ideology and whether its effects will provide the greatest good for the greatest portion of society.
In addition to ethical consequences of different instances of internet freedom, it is important to examine societal changes which may occur within varying degrees of internet freedom. To some degree, universal internet freedom may function as a vehicle for societal change and help advocate for more political freedom in democratic countries and democratic freedom in countries run by more constrictive regimes. In relation to this point, universal internet freedom would help eliminate a preexisting two-step approach configuration between the government, mainstream media, and the general public. Currently in the United States and other counties such as China, sensitive documents, information, and data is released to the public based solely on a government discretional basis. Within WikiLeaks and other decentralized resources, information bypasses this discretional basis and is released directly to the public for open viewing and discussion. This allows for a sense of immediacy and may help spark initiative and change within society. In contrast, a truly expanded and reaching sense of universal internet freedom may lead to societal stagnation. As already demonstrated on social networking websites such as Facebook or Twitter, individual citizens are often content to use the internet and World Wide Web as their sole means of civil participation and engagement. As noted in the Digital Divide, this internet culture can lead to increases in solitude and anonymous based activism which often yield little to no real-life results (Bauerlein, 2011).
For any final research, it would be important to not only examine the overlying patterns of internet freedom within the United States or other countries such as China, but to examine how internet freedom affects the individual citizen. As a theory, it is important to note how internet freedom has demonstrably affected different portions of society, government, and politics and the future impacts it may have, but it is also critical to examine the effects on a micro or individual scale. Does the individual citizen believe varying levels of internet freedom truly have an impact on their own lives or the lives of the general public? Does the individual citizen believe varying levels of internet freedom can mobilize a community for change-positive or negative? Finally, does the individual citizen believe varying level of internet freedom can help advocate for democracy or help to ensure it remains an ideology goaled with the benefit of the general public and society?
Bauerlein, Mark (2011). The Digital Divide: Arguments for and Against Facebook, Google, Texting, and the Age of Social Networking. New York: Penguin Group Inc. .
Freedom on the Net. (2013, October 3). 2013 Global scores. retrieved from freedom house: https://freedomhouse.org/report/freedom-net-2013-global-scores#.VIndDDHF98E
Hoffman, Chris (2013, March 21). HTG explains: how does BitTorrent work? retrieved from How-To Geek: http://www.howtogeek.com/141257/htg-explains-how-does-bittorrent-work/
Hood, Christopher (2011). From FOI world to WikiLeaks world: A new chapter in the transparency story? Governance: An International Journal of Policy, Administration, and Institutions, 635-638.
Horsley, Jamie (2010, July 15). Update on China’s open government information regulations: surprising public demand yielding some positive results. Retrieved from Human Rights in China: http://www.hrichina.org/en/content/3247
Margetts, Helen (2011). The internet and transparency. The Political Quarterly, 518-521.
State Council. (2007, April 5). Regulations of the People’s Republic of China on. Retrieved from The China Law Center, Yale Law School: http://www.law.yale.edu/documents/pdf/Intellectual_Life/Ch_OGI_Regualtions_Eng_Final_051607.pdf
United States Congress. (2009, October 28). 5 U.S. Code § 552 - Public information; agency rules, opinions, orders, records, and proceedings. Retrieved from Cornell University Law School: http://www.law.cornell.edu/uscode/text/5/552