Sunday, October 14, 2007

Government electronic documents released by default

A group of academics and politicians have made the interesting suggestion that government documents in electronic format should be released by default. The idea is that releasing electronic documents is cheap compared to the cost of having someone go through and check them:

There are other reforms that we believe should be considered as part of a wider review of the Act’s operation. Modern information technology (ICT) enables the large scale disclosure of government documents to be achieved at very low cost. ICT allows all documents created by government organisations to be automatically uploaded and published on websites at the time of their creation. There is no reason why this should not be done for all documents except those protected by privacy legislation and the specific, narrow legislative xemptions.

By default, electronic documents would be released to the public, leading to large cost savings in the administration of FOI legislation. Contests would be limited to those few cases in which non-disclosure was based on claims that a document’s disclosure would be contrary to the public interest. ...

From: Be Honest, Minister! RESTORING HONEST GOVERNMENT IN AUSTRALIA, Accountability Working Party, Australasian Study of Parliament Group, 2007

One catch with this proposal is that the cataloging of the information would have to be correct to prevent any privacy or security breeches. Previously public servants could write relatively freely in an internal file, on the assumption most of it would never be made public and what was would be carefully checked before release. If electronic records are freely available, they can be pured over by millions of eyes (and automated search programs) looking for embarrassing, or financially useful, information.

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