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Freedom of information has traditionally meant provision of government-generated information to the public for the purpose of holding government accountable for its actions. But in recent decades, “citizen” and environmental activists have worked to extend freedom of information to increased access to private information. To that end, they have advocated so-called “right to know” laws, which mandate that private firms generate information for the government to make public. They claim that access to such private information is analogous to freedom of information, even thought it involves government coercion to collect.
As a result, the government has been collecting and releasing massive amounts of private data, some of which might provide some value, but much of which is misleading or completely incomprehensible to the average person. In addition to being expensive for private firms to collect, government agencies spend considerable sums to post the data. The release of some of this information—particularly that which relates to the nation’s utilities, chemical plants, and other critical infrastructure—has raised security concerns because it could assist terrorists in selecting targets and launching attacks. The security issue rose in prominence after September 11, 2001. As a result, policy makers have begun to limit public access to both government-generated data and privately generated data collected by government. While there are sure to be mistakes, and while we cannot control all data, there is good reason to control government provision of particularly sensitive information that could assist terrorists in attacking the nation’s critical infrastructure. Such policies require that policymakers balance security concerns with the desire to provide data to the public.
Left-leaning “public interest groups” have suggested that any limitation on “right to know” information is unacceptable and somehow impedes freedom of information. They have even implied that such limits are a violation of the First Amendment, even though the amendment was designed to protect speech—not guarantee access to government collection and distribution of private information. According to OMB Watch, government protection of information that public officials deem “sensitive” for security reasons sets a dangerous precedent in which the federal government and businesses could hide anything from the public.
OMB Watch’s view amounts to an overreaction that fails to acknowledge the fact that freedom of information policy has always included caveats. In addition to protecting officially classified data, the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) provides exemptions for several categories of sensitive information, including: agencies’ internal personnel rules and practices; information specifically exempted by other statutes; privileged interagency or intra-agency memoranda or letters; personal information affecting an individual’s privacy; and investigatory records compiled for law enforcement purposes. September 11 simply highlighted the need to consider national security concerns.
While exemptions are a necessary part of the law, access to a large portion of government information will remain an important part of keeping government accountable. It is reasonable to assume that data used to impact public policy, particularly government-funded research, should be publicly available as long as individuals involved in studies remain anonymous. Ironically, the groups opposing any reasonable limits to coercively collected private data are critical of the Federal Data Access Law and the Federal Data Quality Act, both of which are designed to provide public access to taxpayer-funded data that is used to influence and support federal regulations. In contrast, rather than holding government accountable, “right-to-know” mandates are mostly designed to use private data to bolster government regulation, which appears to be the real agenda behind many of these laws.