Overcoming barriers to information

Brian Martin, The University of Wollongong

What stops timely public access to information that people need and want to know? The answer is relatively easy: a range of barriers to information access, such as bureaucratic secrecy, defamation law and corporate pressure on the media. What is the best way to remove these barriers? The answer to this question is much harder.

An information strategy is an organised way of moving towards a desirable information future, taking into account the current reality, available resources, opponents and obstacles. There aren’t many people acting on the basis of explicit grand strategies, but there are quite a few making valuable contributions. The sum total of efforts in the same general direction can be thought of as a de facto strategy.

So let’s look at some de facto strategies in the information sphere, to see what can be learned. To begin, it’s useful to spell out some specific obstacles to information access. I focus on five particular ones (Martin, 1998).

  • Government and corporate influences on mass media range from heavy-handed attempts to stop stories to the subtle self-censorship deriving from a fear of offending advertisers or sources. Typical things covered up include embarrassing policy failures and corporate malfeasance. Pressure is normally applied to editors and journalists behind the scenes; this pressure is seldom justified publicly.
     
  • There aren’t many people acting on the basis of explicit grand strategies.
    Defamation law is used to stop publication of critical material about individuals and organisations. For example, politicians and entrepreneurs may threaten to sue, and seeing the costs of actual suits scares potential targets, leading to excessive caution even when defamation suits are unlikely. The stated rationale for defamation is protection of reputation, but it is far more effective as a form of censorship. Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation (SLAPPs) most commonly use defamation law (Pring and Canan, 1996).
     
  • Intellectual property is used to restrict access to cheap copies of information and to inhibit innovation building on proprietary materials. The cost of intellectual property reduces access to databases, scientific articles, photographs and music, while worries about legal action inhibit efforts to create improved or creatively modified versions of existing works. Intellectual property is supposed to promote innovation but often slows it by creating intellectual monopolies and by reducing the "intellectual commons"—the public domain—which is the foundation for inspiration and innovation.
     
  • Bureaucratic controls, especially in government and corporate organisations, are used to prevent disclosure of inside information. Employees know an enormous amount about corruption and bad policy but are subject to serious reprisals if they speak out. The usual rationale for organisational secrecy is efficiency; routine leaks by senior bureaucrats reveal a double standard. The power of the bureaucratic hierarchy induces conformity in most employees.
     
  • Misleading information is produced in vast quantities by advertisers, governments and other vested interests, overloading people and making it hard to recognise what is really important. The constant diet of biased and inadequate information leads to confusion and cynicism, while independent sources of information are relegated to the sidelines. Production of misleading information is justified as freedom of speech.

Table 1 gives an overview of some features of these barriers. Much more could be said but the focus here is on strategy, not analysis.

Table 1. Features of Five Barriers to Information
  Influences on Media Defamation Law Intellectual Property Bureaucratic Controls Misleading Information
Typical Thing Covered Up Government and corporate shortcomings; dangers to public Material critical of powerful individuals and organisations Cheaper alternatives Corruption; dangers to public; bad practices and policies Information from independent sources; critical views
Rationale [Normally hidden or denied] Protection of reputation Fostering of intellectual production Efficiency; ministerial control Freedom of speech
Double Standard [Not applicable] Routine defamation, never prosecuted Restraint on intellectual production Leaks by bureaucratic elites  
Target Groups for Influence Journalists, editors Authors, organisations (especially media) Innovators, distributors Employees Public, journalists
Methods Threats; denial of access; withdrawal of advertising Threats; legal action Threats; legal action Censorship; harassment; dismissal Bias; omission; lack of balance; repetition
Consequences Tame media, poorly informed public Muzzling of critical views; tame authors Restricted public domain Bureaucratic conformity Confusion, cynicism
Locus of Power Money, access Law, money Law, money Bureaucratic hierarchy Money
 

What is to be done? Here are five generic strategies.

  • Legal changes include introducing laws guaranteeing freedom of expression, reforming defamation law, protecting whistleblowers and guaranteeing access to government information. Methods of promoting such legal changes include recommendations by law reform bodies, lobbying, and initiatives by legislators.
     
  • Education campaigns are basically efforts to alert people to problems, such as exposés by journalists of corporate pressures on the media or of spin-doctoring by politicians. Advocates of free software have revealed the negative features of proprietary software.
     
  • Pursuing legal change seems an unpromising strategy.
    Principled disobedience is direct and open action against obstacles to information, as when a newspaper reveals that it has come under pressure to spike a story but defiantly publishes it anyway. Whistleblowers are prime practitioners of principled disobedience.
     
  • Alternative avenues are ways to sidestep obstacles by using different methods of communication, such as alternative media or information leaks. Using alternative avenues avoids the direct confrontation of principled disobedience.
     
  • Organisations and networks involve coordination of efforts and of different skills. For example, critics of defamation law—including social activists, journalists and lawyers—can pool their knowledge and skills, reinforcing each other’s challenges to information barriers and occasionally combining resources in campaigns.

Table 2 summarises these strategies in relation to the five barriers to information. Also included in Table 2, in italics, are comments on the existence or success of efforts along the lines of these strategies.

Table 2. Five Strategies for Tackling Barriers to Information
  Influences on Media Defamation Law Intellectual Property Bureaucratic Controls Misleading Information
Legal Changes Constitutional freedom of press; statutory independence—little progress Defamation law reform; anti-SLAPP laws—a long history of failure Relaxation of IP laws—actually they are getting stricter Removal of official secrets laws; FOI; whistleblower legislation—no change or useless Truth in advertising; anti-spamming laws—no progress
Education Campaigns Exposés of pressure on media—many good efforts Information on prevention, challenge—a few contributions Efforts by free software proponents and others—uncoordinated Spinoffs from whistleblower cases—little systematic attention Exposés of bias, spin-doctoring, etc.—some good efforts
Principled Disobedience Publish and publicise defiance of pressure Publish and publicise defamation threat Openly distribute protected material Whistleblowing Culture jamming
Alternative Avenues Alternative media—many examples Publish in other countries or by those with no money—few examples Produce copies in other jurisdictions—few examples Leaking—practised by a few Restrict personal exposure to advertising, mass media—seldom adopted
Networks (Typical Members) Social movements; support groups—rare except for ABC Media organisations, lawyer critics, social activists—limited network Lawyer critics, social activists, artists—very limited network Trade unions, whistleblower organisations—some connections ?
 

Table 2 really is just a convenient way of putting together ideas about information activism. For each row of the table I can draw a lesson.

Lesson 1 Efforts at legal change regularly fail. For example, defamation law reform has been pursued for decades but with no substantive impact. Intellectual property laws are becoming ever more restrictive. Whistleblower legislation almost never helps whistleblowers. Overall, pursuing legal change seems to be an unpromising strategy.

Lesson 2 There is quite a lot of good work, such as media exposés, revealing the problems of accessing information. More exposés are welcome, of course, but what is especially needed is more education about what people can do to change things.

Lesson 3 Principled disobedience is seldom adopted and is even less often successful. For example, few employees are whistleblowers and most whistleblowers are completely unsuccessful. To be useful, principled disobedience should be part of a wider campaign, which can provide support to and draw energy from disobedience.

More effective in practice are approaches that empower individuals and groups.

Lesson 4 Alternative avenues are great for getting around obstacles. Alternative media are plentiful. Leaking is a potent way of circumventing bureaucratic controls. However, alternative avenues do not by themselves remove the obstacles, which remain in place.

Lesson 5 Support networks are crucial. Some of the most useful progress takes place quietly when activists share information about what works and what doesn’t. Leaking can lead to a de facto network of dissident employees and crusading journalists. Much more can be done to foster networking.

The ideal campaign is one that addresses a specific issue that highlights problems, generates publicity, involves open dissent and helps build a network.

  • McLibel The legal defence by Dave Morris and Helen Steel against the defamation suit by McDonald’s became a focal point for anti-McDonald’s activism, generated enormous publicity about both McDonald’s and defamation abuses, involved mass distribution of the defamatory leaflet (titled "What’s wrong with McDonald’s?") and helped build a global activist network. It also put corporations on notice that defamation suits can be counterproductive due to bad publicity (McSpotlight, 2001).
     
  • Intellectual property counter-essay contest In response to an essay contest sponsored by the World Intellectual Property Organisation, critics of intellectual property set up a counter-essay contest (Intellectual Property Counter-Essay Contest, 2001). This has highlighted problems with intellectual property, involved people openly identifying themselves as critics and helped create a network involving activists from a range of fields including software, publishing, pharmaceuticals and genetic engineering.

The strategy that seems to get the most attention and effort is legal changes, yet it has by far the worst track record. Rather than focus on changes in laws and official procedures, more effective in practice are approaches that empower individuals and groups. Education, principled disobedience, alternative avenues and networks reinforce each other and deserve much more support.

REFERENCES

Intellectual Property Counter-Essay Contest (2001) Available: http://www.wipout.net/ [Accessed: 2001, November 12].

Martin, Brian (1998) Information Liberation, Freedom Press, London. Available: http://www.uow.edu.au/arts/sts/bmartin/pubs/98il/.

McSpotlight (2001) Available: http://www.mcspotlight.org/ [Accessed: 2001, November 12].

Pring, George W. and Penelope Canan (1996) SLAPPs: Getting Sued for Speaking Out, Temple University Press, Philadelphia.

Brian Martin is Associate Professor in Science, Technology and Society at the University of Wollongong. He is the author of numerous books and articles on dissent.

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