Lydia Medland: From freedom of information to genuine accountability

Lydia has worked with Spain-based Access Info for several years, working to promote a stronger right of access to information as a tool to fight corruption. She tells us here about her work supporting citizens exercising their rights to access information and how the movement has evolved in recent years, boosted by the Wikileaks cables and the Open Government Partnership. But she stresses the importance of going beyond a 'round of applause' for transparency laws, to proper implementation and genuine accountability.

Lydia has worked with Spain-based Access Info for several years, working to promote a stronger right of access to information as a tool to fight corruption. She tells us here about her work supporting citizens exercising their rights to access information and how the movement has evolved in recent years, boosted by the Wikileaks cables and the Open Government Partnership. But she stresses the importance of going beyond a 'round of applause' for transparency laws, to proper implementation and genuine accountability.

Tell us why you work with information.

Because we want to work with those who are trying to push for progress and create change. Sometimes the amount of information you hold determines the number of cards you have when you push for change. With more information, communities and organisations are more empowered to change the things they feel are necessary, so that they can live in more just societies.

What are the benefits for citizens accessing a field of information, compared to the benefits of governments delivering that information in open formats?

Access to information isn't only useful for citizens. When it's taken on in an open way by governments they often find it can be useful for them too. Often access to information will help them redesign and rethink how they organise their information internally. Another way it can be helpful is the unintended use of the information when it's released. Sometimes when big datasets are released, citizens, journalists or companies will reuse it in a way that's useful for everybody, including the government.

When information was released on bicycle accidents in London, that information was used by citizens to construct a map of hotspots and danger areas for cyclists in London, which in turn informed Transport for London of areas they needed to prioritise, making the city safer.

And how do you work with information?

The issue that we're working on is Access to Information, also known as Freedom of Information. It is about trying to access governmental information and information held by public bodies. The logic behind it is that  governments represent communities and citizens and, therefore, the information they hold doesn't belong to them alone. It actually belongs to the people, the citizens. As has been recognised by the United Nations, the European Union and various international courts, citizens have a right of access to that information.

We work on various different projects which help enable citizens to get that access. In some cases we make requests about specific human rights abuses. In others we help to create platforms which make it easier for citizens to make information requests. And in other cases we're just trying to defend international standards and push for better laws to make this process easier for citizens.

What has changed in the last 5 to 10 years? Information was there 20 years ago, 50 years ago, but somehow we have changed the way we talk about it...

A lot has happened in the last decade, probably even more so in the last five years. Firstly, the Internet has created possibilities that have opened things up for citizens, activists and  governments themselves. So we suddenly see traditional people asking for freedom of information and fighting for the right to information - not just asking for a document, but asking for a whole data set. That might mean that instead of getting a letter through the post with a list of the information requested, I can now ask for an open Excel document. That means that I can reuse the information and create advocacy in a much more empowering way than previously.

The other big thing that's changed in the last five to ten years is a movement toward greater recognition of the right of access to information. Countries like India, Mexico, many countries in Eastern Europe, even some countries in Central and Western Europe such as the UK, Austria and Switzerland, before the year 2000 still didn't recognise that right. Just two years ago the United Nations recognised it as a human right. So there is now a really strong body of consensus and legal backup to say - “yes, this is a right and we should have much more access to government information.”

What's the link between access to information and the growing area of open government data?

Access to information is really rooted in our right to freely express ourselves. Every day we're expressing ourselves more and more in an online format, through online media and various different forums. But just as the way we've expressed ourselves has changed, the way we would like information has changed. The right of access to information has evolved – it is not just the right of access to documents (because we're not just working with information as documents)  but a right of access to all the other ways in which we're using information, and to how governments and public bodies hold our information.

We don't just want a one-page document, we want an open file that we can reuse and work with. There's been a great synergy between people fighting for this legal right and technical experts helping us understand exactly what they need in order for the information we get from governments to be useful for them. We've taken on board some of their messages about, for example, needing to have information in machine-readable format, so that when we're drafting Freedom of Information laws we're incorporating those demands. There's been a really interesting coming together of different types of people and communities to work for a real and deep freedom of expression.

What's over-hyped about access to information?

That's a really good question. What's maybe over-hyped is the assumption that once it's released, the information will do its own work. We have to recognise that once the information is out there, it needs to be accessible. If it's not accessible, it's very unlikely it will be used. Another thing have been government data portals, which have received a lot of publicity but which sometimes contain very little data.

Just having the information available and accessible doesn't necessarily mean accountability is happening or corruption is being fought. We need to be working with people who are really using information in order to fight corruption.

Let's focus for a second on the very specific group - activists. What's the use of this governmental information for activists?

Activists need information so they can show what's going wrong and what they'd like to happen. Essentially they need the evidence behind an argument, so they can prove that their argument isn't just opinion, that it's based on information and evidence. Access to information is often a good resource for people who want to make their case in court or in an environment where trustworthy information is necessary.

Access to Information requests can often be a really good complement to other forms of information. For example, we requested a lot of information about flights going to Guantanamo Bay based on other sources of information which were extremely qualitative and subjective. The result of an Access to Information request can sometimes confirm a testimony or a report from a whistleblower or witness. It can be that final thing which allows a case to go to court, or makes a government take notice of a campaign.

How far would you go in terms of exercising freedom and the right to information? How far you would bend moral boundaries to get important information?

One reason access to information can be really useful is that it doesn't require a huge amount of bending of moral boundaries. It's something that's generally protected legally. In 95 countries across the world, there's a legally recognised right to request information from governments, and it can often be the thing which allows you to show that you are not breaking rules, because this is actually the government giving you the information. It's been legally attained.

We've got a project called Legal Leaks , for journalists. Access to information can be useful for journalists as supplementary documentation, or as an alternative to just trusting leaks. In some countries the whole infrastructure of getting information for journalists is based on contacts. So if you're a journalist who doesn't want to make friends with a politician and doesn't want to be given information as a favour, you can use the right of access to information. You don't have to go out to dinner with a politician in order to get it, or become friends with somebody high-ranking in the government and act in a certain way. In some countries we're trying to change the culture of how journalists and activists get information and break down those class issues. That's a perspective change and sometimes access to information can be useful for that.

There are two other issues that come to mind. One is that access to information is best in combination with a huge amount of creativity. When we're thinking about an information request, we often think about meeting minutes, or a contract, or a physical document. But you can also ask for images or footage. We've seen cases where documentary makers have requested information from the US Navy, for example, and received original declassified footage taken several decades ago, which was then used on the  Guantanamo Bay flights project. We also asked air traffic controllers if flights had gone through their air space, which is totally legitimate information, but maybe not the kind of information you would originally think about.

Just like the world has kind of gone online and information has taken new forms, we also need to be thinking about what format of information is held within public bodies. We may want to ask for images, for e-mails or for internal services that they have.

Finally there is the case of requesting information from countries that aren't known for their democratic traditions. Initially I was scared that if I made an information request to a certain country, they might start looking at why. But I had to remind myself - "I'm not alone here. I'm working in a network." People who work on access to information are really quite networked. There's a Freedom of Information Advocates Network, which connects over 500 individuals.

So I can usually find out if a request is something that will highlight me or not. So far I haven't come into any kind of physical danger or surveillance. We are aware of some countries in which activists aren't so fortunate. Using right to information laws, or access to information laws, can put them in danger. But again, I think that's something that can be mitigated by sharing more information and by working with networks of people.

So, what about the 100 countries within the UN which don't recognise access to information rights??

With countries that don't have access to information laws, we use several tactics. One is staging campaigns for a law. Another is making requests for information even though there are no laws, and to take those requests to court. There was the famous case of Claude Reyes versus Chile in Latin America. Some activists requested information, in this case environmental, and the Chilean government didn't give them anything. But the activists went to the regional Human Rights Court, and the court recognised that within the Chilean government's obligations, under freedom of expression, the country should respond to this request and, furthermore, should make an access to information law.

So even in these countries there are steps that you can take to try and move that forward. In a way that has been the task of people working on Freedom of Information for the last ten years or so. The result of all that work has been the passing of these laws in a lot of countries. We've have reached 95 countries and every year there are more laws coming up.

We're now at a point where our number-one or number-two priority is to start working on implementation and making sure that governments aren't just passing laws in order to get a round of applause from the rest of the world, but that they actually respect the right as well.

A lot of information is held by corporations, private businesses, and other entities, and access to information laws don't always apply. How do you deal with this, considering the fact that sometime these corporations are bigger than the governments...?

Access to information is a tool like any other and it has its restrictions. One of the biggest restrictions is the fact that, while it is recognised as important for public information, it is not recognised for corporate information. Although there are exceptions. Another thing for activists to be working on now is trying to push that boundary and see if we can establish a right of access to corporate information. At present, companies may come under the remit of access to information laws, where they are carrying out public services. For example a recently privatised water company may be easily incorporated within the scope of an access to information law, so I could argue a case that they should respond to requests.

It is a threat though, because there are more and more cases of privatisation, and more and more public functions being carried out by NGOs and corporations. It's a really important issue. In South Africa there's actually a provision in the law which allows requests to be made where there is a doubt about human rights abuses. It is also possible to request information from corporate entities where it may have to do with corruption. Those are things that we could try and push further on, but essentially it is a limitation.

There are also tactics where you get information about corporations by asking for information from governments. For example there's more recognition that I should be able to have access to meeting minutes, or agendas of public officers or politicians. So often I can ask for the agenda of what the President is doing, or what a certain Minister is doing, and I should be able to see when they're having meetings with big corporations. That may help me in my investigation, even if it's a corporate investigation, and not an investigation into government.

The other big thing happening at the moment is the push for more information on the beneficial ownership of companies to be made available. So when companies register themselves they must also provide information about the beneficial owners of that company. It's one area where we would like to be doing more work, to try and get access to a full picture of company registers all over the world.

How are the leaks and evidence of gigantic data collection, supported by governments, changing the way you look at this landscape?

Perhaps the biggest game changer were the WikiLeaks releases a couple of years ago. After that the Open Government Partnership was launched, and a huge movement started as governments wanted to show their support for transparency and open data. Perhaps this was a way to address the issues brought up by the global debate around governmental secrecy.

In some ways, that game changer has had a really positive impact in getting more access and more data out there. The other side, and something we don't work on, is whether whistleblower protection has also been improved, which we really want to see. Because while we believe that there should always be a right of access to information and transparency, as it's an antidote to the need for hacking or leaking, in addition there should always be  protection for whistleblowers.

Do you see any risk that if governments know information needs to be public, they will move certain debates and decisions into an off-line space to avoid that?

One typical worry of governments, particularly before introducing an Access to Information law, or publishing big data sets, is that certain things won't be recorded. From what we've seen, that's an exaggerated risk. We have to understand that citizens are adults, and will get accustomed to understanding that a flight costs a certain amount of money, and that government officials can't always buy a €40 EasyJet flight. You need to understand that citizens will be able to understand how government functions. That's just part of transparency.

I think the fact that a lot more information is coming out has a preventative anti-corruption effect. When you know your information is going to be published you'll make more careful decisions about how you spend it. I think the biggest effect of knowing that information will be out there isn't that some information won't be recorded, it's more that public officials will do things properly, because they're acting on behalf of citizens.

What about the right of governments to information - what is the right of the government to collect information about citizens, when they raise issues of national security?

When we talk about transparency there are some expectations of what governments should be collecting. For example it's very difficult to be able to access information about the environment or participate in decision-making about the environment if governments haven't collected information about the environment. In terms of collecting information about their own citizens, obviously there has to be a constant balance between the right of citizens to privacy, and the right of access to information. Whenever you make an information request, if it contains any personal data that really shouldn't be divulged to the public, governments would have to be really careful about that. The same logic should apply in terms of when they collect information. They certainly shouldn't be using the excuse of transparency to collect information on citizens which would infringe privacy rights.

The obligation of access to information isn't necessarily obliging governments to collect any information that they otherwise wouldn't, and it shouldn't be used in that way.

You say that information can't speak for itself. So what should be done with information, and who should do it, so that it can speak once it's in the open? ?

In order to make sure that information serves it's purpose once it's out in the public domain, and that it's not just sitting unnoticed, we can start from stage one, which is being in contact with the people interested in it. That means talking to experts and asking what format the information needs to be in so that it can be useful. If you are working on access to information for human rights, it requires talking to human rights organisations and asking  -  "where could this information be useful for you? Where could this tool be useful for you?" So, that's where we've started working with people investigating detention of migrants, because those people have the information that is already in the public domain, but they're really interested in getting the information that perhaps isn't in the public domain yet or, at least, isn't in the public domain in any kind of comparable format.

It also means that we need to keep talking about how information can be useful, and to what extent we should be pushing for everything to be open for the sake of being open. Open in a useful way, and not just for the sake of it.

Even if you release the information over time, it will build a certain narrative. And there should be a group of people responsible for that, like journalists or researchers or activists interested in that specific area. And the information has to be edited and linked to context as well. Without processing it is not usable, except for by some experts perhaps. 

How is that information processed?

It's not so much a case for us of processing the information once it's out there. For the platforms which we've created, such as, which assists citizens in requesting information from the European Union, it is the format in which that information comes. That already makes it useful to see how much the European Union is responding to requests and being transparent and answering questions. It's about showing the whole process of transparency. When you ask a question, is it responded to?

For us, it's about making sure that we're not losing opportunities when we don't get information. Quite often governments don't respond, and that can be disappointing for journalists or activists when they really want their question answered about a really important issue. It could be something to do with mining, or oil, human rights abuses or torture, and they could be setting all their hopes on getting that information. One thing that we suggest in those cases is to take a broader look and ask – "okay, if I can't get the information in my own country, is there a country where I might get access to it?" For example, you may want to request information in five countries. And even then, if you don't get information from the place you wanted, you could say - "I've got information from these other four places. This is perhaps showing an area where there's secrecy, or where we need to look further." So it's really helpful for us to be able to request information from different sources. For example with the Guantanamo Bay case, if a flight was going through Europe, we requested information in 28 different countries countries.

Even if under ten countries gave us full information, we wouldn't see that as a failure. We'd actually see that as a success, because you can show not only the countries where you got information, but you can show the countries which are denying information. That points out exactly where you need to focus for the next stage of your investigation or your work.

What changes have you seen recently?

I think there are some things happening at the moment which may be changing dynamics in terms of access to information. One of those is the financial crisis. A lot of the information which used to be in the public domain is ever more in the private domain. This is partly to do with privatisations, and partly to do with a move towards smaller government. There are also questions about the funding of access to information, which could be problematic if it became a big thing.

And I would really like to see us moving towards looking at information coming from , even if we can't get full access to this information. Because there is ever more information being stored in the corporate sphere that's absolutely vital for understanding how our world works, how we can continue to create change, and how we can continue to support activists and journalists in their endeavors.