Access To Public Information

Subject: Access To Public Information
From: Hannele Koivunen ( )
Date: to 04 heinä  1996 - 10:00:30 EEST

The European Commission arranged a conference ”Access To Public Information:
A Key To Commercial Growth And Electronic Democracy” in Stockholm, 27-28.6.1996.

The main theme of the conference was information content. The public sector
produces a great deal of information, much of which is of interest for
commercial purposes or for informing citizens as part of the democratic
process, but the framework for making that information available is not
always in place.

As announced in the INFO 2000 programme and following a number of studies
and preliminary discussions, a Green Paper will be published by the European
Commission on that subject in 1996. This Green Paper aims at initiating a
public debate on accessing the vast amount of information held at different
levels of the public sector and under different rules for access throughout
the Member States.

The themes of the conference were:

-Public access to public sector-held information and dissemination policy
-How to conciliate access to public information and privacy, intellectual
property rights and national interests
-Improving the synergy between the public and private sectors in the
information market
-The information society and democracy in Europe.

The conference did not quite fulfil all expectations raised by these issues.
Generally speaking the presentations of the conference remained at the very
common level. The speakers repeated the same phrases of democracy and free
access to information. The time for discussion was really very limited and
the conversation did not reach any concrete solutions on how to realize
those elevated aims in practice. I shared this impression with many other
participants of the conference,too. And I missed the feminine point of view.
There were only a few female speakers. It seems to me that the European
information society is still men´s territory.

The exchange of information is an economic benefit. Economically small and
medium sized companies´ access to information is crucial. The conference
focused more on the problems of commercial growth than on the problem of
electronic democracy. It was, of course, taken as self-evident that citizens
should have access to the public sector information, and that we need more
transparency at all levels of the administration. Speakers emphasised the
need to take care of the information poor, the ”have-nots”, and to create a
proper infrastructure for citizens. But the majority of the speakers were
more concerned with the commercial roles of the public sector and the
private sector. They accepted that the public sector produces raw
information, but many speakers wanted to reserve the role of disseminating
”added value” information for the private sector. It was somehow surprising,
especially for a Finn, that the public and private sectors were seen as
competitors, as if they had an antagonist or contradictory relationship with
each other. I think that here in Finland we have gone beyond that phase in
building the information society. On the other hand all kinds of monopolies,
both private and public ones, were resisted. Citizens´ access is best
realized through the diversity of channels.

The Nordic countries have a long tradition of free access to public
information. This freedom varies a lot in Member States. From that point of
view it is interesting, to see how these different traditions meet in the
EU. A very interesting topic, which was discussed in the conference, was the
openness of the EU and free access to preparatory documents of the EU. The
access to information, and the access to documents are differents concepts.
There is a gap between the need for information and the need for documents.
People do not want documents, they want information. The access to
information can be active or passive. The copyright of public information
also differs a lot in Member States.

The Internet was defined as:

- a market place
- a courthouse for dispute resolution
- a townhall for democracy

It was accepted that citizens need access points in the information society
infrastructure. I think there we find a role for libraries.

To sum up the spirit of the conference: We have to face many open questions.
Openness has its problems (privacy protection, data security, copyright,
encryption, etc.). Openness cannot but conflict with different interests,
but in spite of these difficulties it has a high value which cannot be
overestimated in democracy.

What did I learn from this conference? I learned a fascinating new concept:
”information apartheid”. I also liked the idea of ”continuous democracy”
instead of ”direct democracy”. And I learned by heart one quotation:

”Change is one thing, progress is another. Change is technical, progress is

But the crucial question still remains as Mr.Frans DE BRÜINE, Director of
Directorate General XIII-E, put it at the end of the conference: ”Are we
changing fast enough?” He said that our challenge, and survival strategy in
facing problems is, like Lucky Luke, to draw even faster.

Mr. De Brüine stated the aims of the Green Paper. Why do we need it? The
answer is:

- to bring the subject to the political agenda
- to underline inevitable developments
- to identify areas of common interest
- to build consensus on need for action

The Green Paper will not

- predict the future
- promote ideologies
- state solutions

The Green Paper will

- address key questions
- propagate pragmatism
- build on diversity
- encourage flexibility

Greetings from the conference

Hannele Koivunen

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