Category Archives: Freedom of Information

Media Freedom: ‘Without action the Commonwealth’s fine words will fail to impress.’

ICommonwealth flagn this guest post, journalist and Africa analyst Martin Plaut, calls on the Commonwealth to take a more robust view on new threats to journalistic independence. Do they challenge democracy and human rights as much as freedom of speech?

The Commonwealth has a problem: it has little credibility on the question of media freedom. Its members adopted a Human Rights Charter in March 2013 which stated plainly that: ‘We are committed to peaceful, open dialogue and the free flow of information, including through a free and responsible media, and to enhancing democratic traditions and strengthening democratic processes.’ Yet many of them have a less than savoury record in this area.

Out of 180 states assessed by Reporters Without Borders, Brunei is 155th, Singapore 154th and Swaziland 153rd. This is the summary of Brunei’s media offered by the BBC: ‘Brunei’s media are neither diverse nor free. The private press is either owned or controlled by the royal family, or exercises self-censorship on political and religious matters.’ Much the same could be said of Swaziland, while in Singapore the media is largely state-owned and journalists are restricted by rigorous defamation and contempt laws (The Guardian).

Where there has been dissent and opposition they have been suppressed. Consider the case of the Gambia, which left the Commonwealth in 2013. The newly installed President, Adama Barrow, has announced that it will return. In the upheaval and tension surrounding his election and the refusal of his processor, Yahya Jammeh, to accept the result, social media were disrupted. Twitter and WhatsApp, which had been used to organise resistance to President Jammeh’s rule, were unavailable, as the internet was cut. The return of social media was hailed as an indication that his 22 year rule was finally over.

Commonwealth journalists have now begun agitating for the organisation to take a more robust view. A Centre for Freedom of the Media has been established, led by William Horsley (another former BBC journalist). He welcomed the call by the new Commonwealth secretary-general, Patricia Scotland, for a ‘vibrant and responsible media’ and her claim that this is ‘vital to advancing our Commonwealth goals of democracy, development, rule of law and respect for diversity.’

But, as William Horsley points out, warm words are not enough. He called for action to support the declarations: ‘Journalists in the Commonwealth Journalists Association (CJA), together with the Commonwealth Press Union Media Trust and some experienced lawyers and members of other professional groups associated with the Commonwealth, argue that it is high time for that to change. We are putting forward draft proposals for a Commonwealth Charter on the media and good governance, to be accompanied by effective mechanisms for assessing and helping to deliver remedies for serious and persistent violations.’

The media is a vital watchdog across the developing world. In many countries it is among the last effective forms of resistance to corruption and misrule. One only has to think of the role of the independent media in curbing the abuses of the Zuma government to see that this is the case. Yet they pay a high price for this work.

As William Horsley rightly observes: ‘The reality is that many journalists or bloggers have been attacked or even killed for their work in recent years in Sri Lanka, Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, Nigeria and Uganda, all Commonwealth states,’ (Time for a new Commonwealth initiative on media freedom).

It is time that these abuses end and that the perpetrators of these attacks are tried for their crimes. Without action the Commonwealth’s fine words will fail to impress.

This post first appeared on the School of Advanced Studies, Talking Humanities blog

Martin Plaut is a journalist and senior research fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies at the School of Advanced Study, University of London. 

He will be speaking at The Commonwealth and Challenges to Media Freedom conference (4–5 April at Senate House), organised by the Institute of Commonwealth Studies.

It’s the inaugural event of the School’s Centre of Commonwealth and Media Freedom, and will bring together leading Commonwealth journalists, academics, lawyers, magistrates, judges, policymakers and human rights practitioners. Advance registration is required. Tickets: standard (£40), concessions (£15).

Call for papers: Critical Research in Information Law

Deadline 15 March 2017

The Information Law Group at the University of Sussex is pleased to announce its annual PhD and Work in Progress Workshop on 3 May 2017. The workshop, chaired by Professor Chris Marsden, will provide doctoral students with an opportunity to discuss current research and receive feedback from senior scholars in a highly focused, informal environment. The event will be held in conjunction with the Work in Progress Workshop on digital intermediary law.

We encourage original contributions critically approaching current information law and policy issues, with particular attention on the peculiarities of information law as a field of research. Topics of interest include:

  • internet intermediary liability
  • net neutrality and media regulation
  • surveillance and data regulation
  • 3D printing
  • the EU General Data Protection Regulation
  • blockchain technology
  • algorithmic/AI/robotic regulation
  • Platform neutrality, ‘fake news’ and ‘anti-extremism’ policy.

How to apply: Please send an abstract of 500 words and brief biographical information to Dr Nicolo Zingales  by 15 March 2017. Applicants will be informed by 30 March 2017 if selected. Submission of draft papers by selected applicants is encouraged, but not required.

Logistics: 11am-1pm 3 May in the Moot Room, Freeman Building, University of Sussex.

Afternoon Workshop: all PhD attendees are registered to attend the afternoon workshop 2pm-5.30pm F22 without charge (programme here).

Financial Support: Information Law Group can repay economy class rail fares within the UK. Please inform the organizers if you need financial assistance.

Reflections on ‘Freedom of Information’ at 250

Freedom of Information Act Sweden and Finland 1766

In December 2016, the Information Law and Policy Centre co-organised an event celebrating the 250th anniversary of the world’s first law providing a right to information. It was hosted by free expression NGO, Article 19 at the Free Word Centre and supported by the Embassies of Sweden and Finland. A full programme of the event and the audio files are available on the Campaign for Freedom of Information website. In this post, Judith Townend and Daniel Bennett reflect on a few of the key themes discussed at the event. 

Accessing information may no longer feel like a pressing problem. We live in an age of global telecommunications, the internet and the smartphone with access to ubiquitous 24/7 media coverage on demand. Our data is collected, tracked, mapped and analysed by social media networks, search engines, commercial enterprises, governments and public authorities around the world. And yet, 250 years after the first law providing for a right to information was passed, the right for us – the public – to access information relating to the administration of state power remains a struggle.

Our ‘Freedom of Information at 250’ event sought to put this struggle into its historical context. The event celebrated and commemorated the signing into law of ‘His Majesty’s Gracious Ordinance Relating to Freedom of Writing and of the Press’ on 2nd December 1766.¹ Enacted by the Riksdag (parliament) of Sweden – which then also included Finland – this was the world’s first law to promise public access to governmental information. Continue reading

Your next social network could pay you for posting

In this guest post, Jelena Dzakula from the London School of Economics and Political Science considers what blockchain technology might mean for the future of social networking. 

You may well have found this article through Facebook. An algorithm programmed by one of the world’s biggest companies now partially controls what news reaches 1.8 billion people. And this algorithm has come under attack for censorship, political bias and for creating bubbles that prevent people from encountering ideas they don’t already agree with.

blockchainNow a new kind of social network is emerging that has no centralised control like Facebook does. It’s based on blockchain, the technology behind Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies, and promises a more democratic and secure way to share content. But a closer look at how these networks operate suggests they could be far less empowering than they first appear.

Blockchain has received an enormous amount of hype thanks to its use in online-only cryptocurrencies. It is essentially a ledger or a database where information is stored in “blocks” that are linked historically to form a chain, saved on every computer that uses it. What is revolutionary about it is that this ledger is built using cryptography by a network of users rather than a central authority such as a bank or government.

Every computer in the network has access to all the blocks and the information they contain, making the blockchain system more transparent, accurate and also robust since it does not have a single point of failure. The absence of a central authority controlling blockchain means it can be used to create more democratic organisations owned and controlled by their users. Very importantly, it also enables the use of smart contracts for payments. These are codes that automatically implement and execute the terms of a legal contract.

Industry and governments are developing other uses for blockchain aside from digital currencies, from streamlining back office functions to managing health data. One of the most recent ideas is to use blockchain to create alternative social networks that avoid many of the problems the likes of Facebook are sometimes criticised for, such as censorship, privacy, manipulating what content users see and exploiting those users.

Continue reading

Network Neutrality: From policy to law to regulation

network-neutrality-coverBook launch at the Institute of Advanced Legal Studies
Charles Clore House
17 Russell Square
London WC1B 5DR
6pm – 8pm, 9 February 2017

This event is FREE but advanced booking is required on the IALS Events Calendar

Speaker: Professor Christopher T. Marsden: Professor of Internet Law, (University of Sussex Law School)

Discussants: Dr Angela Daly, Vice-Chancellor’s Research Fellow, (Queensland University of Technology Faculty of Law); Research Associate, Tilburg Institute of Law, Technology and Society; Professor Ian Walden, Professor of Information and Communications Law, (Queen May, University of London.)

Net neutrality is the most contested Internet access policy of our time. This book offers an in-depth explanation of the concept, addressing its history since 1999, its engineering, the policy challenges it represents and its legislation and regulation.

Various case studies are presented, including Specialized Services and Content Delivery Networks for video over the Internet, and the book goes on to examine the future of net neutrality battles in Europe, the United States and developing countries, as well as offering co-regulatory solutions based on FRAND and non-exclusivity.

It will be a must-read for researchers and advocates in the net neutrality debate, as well as those interested in the context of communications regulation, law and economic regulation, human rights discourse and policy, and the impact of science and engineering on policy and governance.

This seminar will be followed by the book launch of “Network Neutrality: From Policy to Law to Regulation” by Christopher Marsden, (Manchester University Press, 2017).

Freedom of Information at 250: now on Storify

Last week, Article 19 held the ‘Freedom of Information at 250‘ event at the Free Word Centre. The aim of the event was to commemorate, celebrate and scrutinise the adoption of the first freedom of information law in Sweden and Finland in 1766.

Participants also discussed the relevance and significance of the law today and the future of freedom of information, in a national and global context.

There was a range of speakers on the day including Maurice Frankel and Des Wilson from the Campaign for Freedom of Information (CFOI), the new Information Commissioner, Elizabeth Denham, and Lord James Wallace of Tankerness, former member of Scottish Government, who piloted the Freedom of Information Act through the Scottish Parliament.

We have collected a number of tweets from participants at the event using #FOI250 and published them on Storify to help capture the flavour of the discussions which took place.

The collection documents the two moderated discussions and the evening panel. There is also a list of resources and reaction at the end of the collection. Click here or on the image below to view the Storify collection.

foi250-event-storify

Freedom of Information at 250 was an Article 19 event held at the Free Word Centre with the support of the Information Law and Policy Centre at the Institute of Advanced Legal Studies, and the Embassies of Sweden and Finland.

Information Law and Policy Centre’s annual workshop highlights new challenges in balancing competing human rights

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Our annual workshop and lecture – held earlier this month – brought together a wide range of legal academics, lawyers, policy-makers and interested parties to discuss the future of human rights and digital information control.

A number of key themes emerged in our panel sessions including the tensions present in balancing Article 8 and Article 10 rights; the new algorithmic and informational power of commercial actors; the challenges for law enforcement; the liability of online intermediaries; and future technological developments.

The following write up of the event offers a very brief summary report of each panel and of Rosemary Jay’s evening lecture.

Morning Session

Panel A: Social media, online privacy and shaming

Helen James and Emma Nottingham (University of Winchester) began the panel by presenting their research (with Marion Oswald) into the legal and ethical issues raised by the depiction of young children in broadcast TV programmes such as The Secret Life of 4, 5 and 6 Year Olds. They were also concerned with the live-tweeting which accompanied these programmes, noting that very abusive tweets could be directed towards children taking part in the programmes.

Continue reading

Access to information should not be an after-thought in plans for ‘transforming our justice system’

In this post, Sussex University lecturer Judith Townend argues that access to information should be at the heart of plans to reform the justice system. She summarises the key points from her submission to the Ministry of Justice in response to the consultation on the proposed reforms. The post first appeared on the Transparency Project website. 

Transforming justice - access to justiceOn 15th September 2016 the Ministry of Justice opened its consultation into “Transforming Our Justice System”. The 36 page document, accompanied by a statement by the Lord Chancellor, the Lord Chief Justice and the Senior President of Tribunals, sets out a “vision” for a radical overhaul and major financial investment in courts and tribunals in England and Wales. The plans for reform include more use of case officers for routine tasks, more decisions made “on the papers” (where a judge can consider representations without a physical hearing), more virtual hearings, and more cases resolved out of court.

The consultation document concentrated on some specific areas of reform including its “assisted digital” strategy (to help users access services), and online conviction and statutory fixed fine plans. The latter would allow for certain routine, low-level summary, non-imprisonable offences with no identifiable victim to be resolved entirely online, whereby a defendant would enter their plea to an online system. If that’s a guilty plea they would be able to view the penalty, accept the conviction and penalty, and pay their fine.

Responses were sought on online convictions and the “assisted digital” strategy by 10th November (extended after an administrative error). It is likely that many of the responses will focus on the access to justice issues and the risks of an online plea system; research by the charity Transform Justice, for example, indicates that “many unrepresented defendants do not understand whether they are guilty or innocent in legal terms – whether they have a valid defence – and certainly don’t understand the full implications of each option”.

However, there’s another major issue which is overlooked in the consultation, that of access to courts and tribunals by members of the public who are not necessarily directly involved with proceedings — this includes members of the media, NGOs and universities, but also ordinary people who wish to observe proceedings and access the information to which they are legitimately entitled.

Although the consultation document contains a pledge that the judiciary and government will “continue to ensure open justice”, access to proceedings and materials is not explored in any detail in relation to the specific reforms outlines on online convictions and “assisted digital”. It states the “principle of open justice will be upheld and the public will still be able to see and hear real-time hearings, whilst we continue to protect the privacy of the vulnerable” (p.5). This sentence points to a very important tension in complex digital environments, and one that needs overt recognition and detailed consideration when designing new access systems for online court procedures in both civil and criminal contexts.

There is mention of “transparency” in the joint statement (p.10) but only in relation to general data about proceedings (i.e. statistics) rather than with regard to access to proceedings. The Impact Assessment on Online Convictions mentions that “Listings and results would be published” (p.5, para 23) with no indication of whether this means to the open web (indefinitely?), or in a physical courtroom. If they intend to publish the full listings for all these summary only non-imprisonable offences to the open web, it is very important that the judiciary and MoJ consider the legal and societal implication of this — it is not something that has previously been done so systematically by the court.

Given that many major criminal convictions are unreported by the media owing to a lack of resource or interest, we could end up in a strange situation where there is greater access via online search for far less serious offences and this must be considered in the context of issues such as equal opportunities and potential barriers to work, as well as open justice and transparency. The MoJ, HMCTS and Judiciary should investigate a range of technological options for sharing data from courts and tribunals and should open these proposals to scrutiny through stakeholder research and official consultation.

In the annual University of Sussex Draper Lecture 2016 in London this week (8 November), Lord Justice Fulford* said that one option being considered was to provide viewing centres in public buildings, but these were early days and they were still looking for imaginative solutions. It would seem perverse, given the overall agenda of the reforms, for the courts not to consider digital access options that do not require physical travel to court.  

On behalf of the Transparency Project I have written a submission to the consultation, raising our overall concern about the lack of attention given to open justice and access to information in these initial documents. Our submission urges the Ministry of Justice and Judiciary to provide more detail on their specific plans for physical and digital access to virtual proceedings and to open these plans to further consultation. Too often, public access to courts information is an afterthought, which leads to mistakes such as the inadvertent release of sensitive and confidential data, or insufficient information and access being made available.

*Unfortunately I was unable to attend the lecture but it was reported by TP member Paul Magrath here and the Law Society Gazette here.

Judith Townend is a lecturer in media and information law at the University of Sussex and a member of the Transparency Project Core Group. She is the former Director of the Information Law and Policy Centre. 

Photo: Steph GrayCC BY-SA 2.0

Article 19 event: 250 years of freedom of information

Freedom of Information Act Sweden and Finland 1766

On 2 December 1766, the world’s first-ever freedom of information law was signed into law. It had been promulgated by the Riksdag – Parliament – of Sweden and Finland, which at the time was one country.

The 1766 Law is the oldest constitution to regulate freedom of information in the world and is thus celebrating its 250th anniversary in 2016.

It pioneered public access to state information, making what was then Sweden and Finland the first country in the world to officially instigate a Right to Information law.

The aim of this event is to commemorate, celebrate and scrutinise the adoption of this law as well as to discuss its relevance and significance today, in a national as well as in a global context.

The Article 19 event will be held at the Free Word Centre with the support of the Information Law and Policy Centre at the IALS on Thursday 8th December, 2.30pm – 8.30pm.

It is comprised of two moderated discussions and a panel discussion in the format of a conversation, and will end with a drinks and canapés reception for all participants after the panel discussion.

BOOKING

Please note: You will need to book for each event separately.
Please visit this page to book the afternoon moderated discussions.
Please visit this page to book the evening panel discussion.

AFTERNOON MODERATED DISCUSSIONS
2.30pm – 5.15pm

Session 1: Freedom of Information Act (FOI) in the UK and Europe

In the first session the current challenges as well as possibilities of the Freedom of Information Act, both in a UK and European context, will be discussed with:

Maurice Frankel, Director, and Des Wilson, Founder, of Campaign for Freedom of Information (CFOI) – the organisation that, in 1984, was founded to secure a legal right to public-held information.

Helen Darbishire Director of Access Info Europe – dedicated to promoting and protecting the right of access to information particularly in European countries and institutions.

The session will be moderated by James Michael, Chair of the Advisory Board at the Information Law and Policy Centre (IALS) and Special Adviser to the House of Lords Committee considering the Freedom of Information Bill pre-2000.

Session 2: Freedom of Information Law – The Swedish/Finnish history

In the second session the history, development and legacy of the Freedom of Information Act in Sweden and Finland, will be discussed with:

Jonas Nordin from the Royal National Library, Stockholm – a Historian and Senior Lecturer who, earlier this year, published a history of the Swedish/Finnish Freedom of Information Act.

Peter Hogg, former Head of the Scandinavian Section at the British Library and translator of the first ever translation of the TF Law into English in 2006.

Ian Giles from the Scandinavian Studies Department at the University of Edinburgh, one of the translators of the second translation into English of the 1766 Law (October 2016).

Toby Mendel, Executive Director of the Center for Law and Democracy, Halifax, Canada and author of a range of books on freedom of information, including comparative and analytical studies on the right to information and international FOI consultant.

The session will be moderated by Ben Worthy from Birkbeck College, University of London. Ben is a lecturer in politics who has authored many works on freedom of information.

EVENING PANEL DISCUSSION
6.00pm – 8.30pm

The evening panel discussion will be presented in the format of a conversation. It will be moderated by the BBC’s Nicola Cain and will include the UK’s new Information Commissioner Elizabeth Denham, who will cover the contemporary issues, challenges and opportunities presented by living with FOI laws – and what the future may hold.

Speakers

Nicola Cain, BBC Head of Legal – Freedom of Information & Contentious Data Protection who deals with FOI requests and appeals.

Elizabeth Denham, UK Information Commissioner – independent regulatory office dealing with the UK Freedom of Information law.

Lord James Wallace of Tankerness, former member of the Scottish Government who piloted the Freedom of Information Act through the Scottish Parliament.

With thanks to the Information Law and Policy Centre, the Embassy of Sweden and the Embassy of Finland.

Full Programme: Annual Workshop and Evening Lecture

Restricted and Redacted: Where now for human rights and digital information control?

The full programme for the Information Law and Policy Centre’s annual workshop and lecture on Wednesday 9th November 2016 is now available (see below).

For both events, attendance will be free of charge thanks to the support of the IALS and our sponsor, Bloomsbury’s Communications Law journal.

To register for the afternoon workshop please visit this Eventbrite page.
To register for the evening lecture please visit this Eventbrite Page.

Please note that for administrative purposes you will need to book separate tickets for the afternoon and evening events if you would like to come to both events.

PROGRAMME

10.45am: REGISTRATION AND COFFEE 

11.15am: Welcome

  • Judith Townend, University of Sussex
  • Paul Wragg, University of Leeds
  • Julian Harris, Institute of Advanced Legal Studies, University of London

11.30am-1pm: PANEL 1 – choice between A and B

Panel A: Social media, online privacy and shaming

Chair: Asma Vranaki, Queen Mary University of London

  1. David Mangan, City, University of London, Dissecting Social Media: Audience and Authorship
  2. Marion Oswald, Helen James, Emma Nottingham, University of Winchester, The not-so-secret life of five year olds: Legal and ethical issues relating to disclosure of information and the depiction of children on broadcast and social media
  3. Maria Run Bjarnadottir, Ministry of the Interior in Iceland, University of Sussex, Does the internet limit human rights protection? The case of revenge porn
  4. Tara Beattie, University of Durham, Censoring online sexuality – A non-heteronormative, feminist perspective

Panel B: Access to Information and protecting the public interest

Chair: Judith Townend, University of Sussex

  1. Ellen P. Goodman, Rutgers University, Obstacles to Using Freedom of Information Laws to Unpack Public/Private Deployments of Algorithmic Reasoning in the Public Sphere
  2. Felipe Romero-Moreno, University of Hertfordshire, ‘Notice and staydown’, the use of content identification and filtering technology posing a fundamental threat to human rights
  3. Vigjilenca Abazi, Maastricht University, Mapping Whistleblowing Protection in Europe: Information Flows in the Public Interest

1-2pm: LUNCH 

2-3.30pm: PANEL 2 – choice between A and B

Panel A: Data protection and surveillance

Chair: Nora Ni Loideain, University of Cambridge

  1. Jiahong Chen, University of Edinburgh, How the Best Laid Plans Go Awry: The (Unsolved) Issues of Applicable Law in the General Data Protection Regulation
  2. Jessica Cruzatti-Flavius, University of Massachusetts, The Human Hard Drive: Name Erasure and the Rebranding of Human Beings
  3. Wenlong Li, University of Edinburgh, Right to Data Portability (RDP)
  4. Ewan Sutherland, Wits University, Wire-tapping in the regulatory state – changing times, changing mores

Panel B: Technology, power and governance

Chair: Chris Marsden, University of Sussex

  1. Monica Horten, London School of Economics, How Internet structures create closure for freedom of expression – an exploration of human rights online in the context of structural power theory
  2. Perry Keller, King’s College, London, Bringing algorithmic governance to the smart city
  3. Marion Oswald, University of Winchester and Jamie Grace, Sheffield Hallam University, Intelligence, policing and the use of algorithmic analysis – initial conclusions from a survey of UK police forces using freedom of information requests as a research methodology
  4. Allison Holmes, Kent University, Private Actor or Public Authority? How the Status of Communications Service Providers affects Human Rights

3.30-5pm: PANEL 3 – choice between A and B

Panel A: Intermediary Liability

Chair: Christina Angelopoulos, University of Cambridge

  1. Judit Bayer, Miskolc University, Freedom and Diversity on the Internet: Liability of Intermediaries for Third Party Content
  2. Mélanie Dulong de Rosnay, Félix Tréguer, CNRS-Sorbonne Institute for Communication Sciences and Federica Giovanella, University of Trento, Intermediary Liability and Community Wireless Networks Design Shaping
  3. David Rolph, University of Sydney, Liability of Search Engines for Publication of Defamatory Matter: An Australian Perspective

Panel B: Privacy and anonymity online

Chair: Paul Wragg, University of Leeds

  1. Gavin Phillipson, University of Durham, Threesome injuncted: has the Supreme Court turned the tide against the media in online privacy cases?
  2. Fiona Brimblecombe, University of Durham, European Privacy Law
  3. James Griffin, University of Exeter and Annika Jones, University of Durham, The future of privacy in a world of 3D printing

5-6pm: TEA BREAK / STRETCH YOUR LEGS

6-8pm: EVENING LECTURE AND DRINKS

Lecture Title: Heads and shoulders, knees and toes (and eyes and ears and mouth and nose…): The impact of the General Data Protection Regulation on use of biometrics.

Biometrics are touted as one of the next big things in the connected world. Specific reference to biometrics and genetic data has been included for the first time in the General Data Protection Regulation. How does this affect existing provisions? Will the impact of the Regulation be to encourage or to restrict the development of biometric technology?

  • Speaker: Rosemary Jay, Senior Consultant Attorney at Hunton & Williams and author of Sweet & Maxwell’s Data Protection Law & Practice.
  • Chair: Professor Lorna Woods, University of Essex
  • Respondents: Professor Andrea Matwyshyn, Northeastern University and Mr James Michael, IALS