Going for gold in information policy olympics
National governments compete at many levels and for many different purposes. The
recently completed Olympic Games illustrates one type of competition among nations.
Countries also compete more continuously over economic advantage, political influence,
military power and moral leadership. Each country is better at some activities than at
This is true in the information policy arena as well, where international comparisons
become common as information travels across borders with increasing ease. If we view
information policy as a competitive event, the United States finds itself well in front of
many countries in some contests and well behind in others.
The competitive element in information policy is something I discovered when attending
a recent European Union conference in Stockholm on electronic democracy, commercial growth
and access to public information. I had been invited to present a paper on the American
model of access to and dissemination of government information.
It was clear from the discussions that the United States is seen as a leader in
government access and dissemination activities. At international privacy conferences, I am
used to being apologetic about our failures to meet world standards on privacy.
We do better than most countries in using the Internet to make government information
available. Our laws, including the 1995 Paperwork Reduction Act, are better attuned to the
electronic information era. Aided by readily available government data, American companies
have been world leaders in the information business.
There is certainly more to be done to improve things here. Still, in an international
competition, the United States would be a clear favorite for a gold medal in electronic
dissemination and global information infrastructure events. The First Amendment, aided by
the recent decision overturning restrictions on Internet speech, would be a perpetual gold
medal winner as well.
In freedom of information events, the United States would be a respectable contender
but not a sure winner. Our FOI Act passed in 1966, but the Swedish open-records law dates
back more than 200 years. Canada's law is more recent than ours, but it is also more
In Europe, FOI policies vary considerably, and entrenched bureaucratic resistance to
disclosure remains strong. Britain, for example, still has a repressive Official Secrets
Act and no open records law. If, as expected, the Labor Party wins the next election, a
new British access law is all but assured.
The EU recognizes that its own openness policies are old-fashioned, inconsistent
between member nations and fail to effectively use available technology. The motivation to
do better is not simply an interest in enhancing democracy. A strong undercurrent at the
conference was the connection between information and economic growth.
Several speakers commented on the employment potential in the information business. It
is no coincidence that foreigners bought American information companies such as
Lexis-Nexis and West Publishing.
An EU green paper on government information access and dissemination is likely to
emerge in the fall. This will be followed by more discussions and a formal plan of action
next year. Because of the different national policies in Europe, it will not be easy for
the EU to achieve a consensus. The Europeans see access and privacy as an element of more
complex antitrust, telecommunications and copyright issues. Despite the challenges, there
seems to be a commitment to more transparency (openness) and to more synergy
Although the United States is in a strong position on dissemination, we would lag
behind much of the world in international privacy events. In any competition to protect
medical, insurance, employment and other major personal record categories, the United
States would not even have a law that qualifies for entry.
We are not totally out of the running in privacy, however. The Electronic
Communications Privacy Act would be a strong contender in a telecommunications privacy
event. The Privacy Act of 1974 would also be a respectable competitor in the government
records privacy category, although our aging law does not compare well with more modern
fair information practice laws in Europe.
Attending the EU conference in Sweden was pleasant for many reasons. It was a nice
change for me to represent a progressive information policy admired by others. Just like
at the Olympic Games, it is more fun when your team is a winner.
Robert Gellman, former chief counsel to the House Government Operations
Subcommittee on Information, Justice, Transportation and Agriculture, is a Washington
privacy and information policy consultant. His e-mail address is email@example.com.