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JILT 1998 (1) - Dag Wiese Schartum

Access to Government-Held Information:

Challenges and Possibilities

Professor Dag Wiese Schartum [1]
University of Oslo
d.w.schartum@jus.uio.no

Contents
Abstract
1. Background and Introduction
2. A Transparent Public Administration
3. Access as a condition for democratic participation
4. Access as a condition for a public administration under the rule of law
5. Access as a condition for data protection
6. An overall view on access rights to government-held information
7. A Transparent Public Sector for the Future
  7.1 Public Access to Computer Systems
  7.2 Open Public Archives
  7.3 Social Information Networks
8. Conclusion
  Bibliography

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This is a Refereed Article published on 27 February 1998.

Citation: Schartum D W, 'Access to Government-Held Information: Challenges and Possibilities', 1998 (1) The Journal of Information, Law and Technology (JILT). <http://elj.warwick.ac.uk/jilt/infosoc/98_1scha/>. New citation as at 1/1/04: <http://www2.warwick.ac.uk/fac/soc/law/elj/jilt/1998_1/schartum/>.


Abstract:

This article discusses possible challenges to an open and accessible public sector in the information society. The discussion is based on three ideals for governing society which all require a large degree of access to government-held information: namely democracy, the rule of law, and data protection; and contains brief descriptions of technological trends and possibilities. Proposals are presented concerning public access to computer systems, 'open public archives' and emphasising the dispersion of public information to 'social information networks' rather than individuals. The article represents a legal-political approach.

Key words: Access to public information, democracy, rule of law, data protection.

1. General background and introduction

In 1989, Directorate General XIII of the European Commission issued a document with the aim of co-ordinating national policies on access to government-held information. These "Guidelines for Improving the Synergy between the Public and Private Sectors in the Information Market" were designed to assist government bodies on access issues. The main idea was that public sector information could function as a motor for the development of an information market. Today, almost ten years later, a Green Paper on the dissemination of documents held by the public sector is expected. The current discussion does not only address market implications but also contain democratic issues and a recognition of the need for open government as a guarantee of the Rule of Law.[2] In this article access to government-held information will be discussed on the basis of a traditional Norwegian approach, implying an emphasis on these non-market aspects of transparent governments.[3]

The article will examine the possible consequences information and communication technology may have for citizens' ability to obtain access to documents and information held by public administration. The discussion is based on three central ideals of government which each assume that access to information is extensive. I will analyse the new requirements which ought to be placed on access to government-held information in order to support the ideals of democracy, rule of law and data protection. The main objective of the article is to propose how technology can be used actively to protect and strengthen those -mentioned ideals.

2. A Transparent Public Administration

Public access rights and public information activities are two central aspects of an open and transparent public sector. The term 'access rights' refers to the right for everyone to have access to information from governmental bodies on request. This right is particularly important where that information pertains to the exercise of public authority. An open and transparent public sector also requires a right to receive information disseminated by the government on its own initiative. In European welfare societies, information activities constitute an important part of public authorities' tasks. Public information often addresses citizens' duties and rights as well as their standard of living, health and safety. In Norway there is no general statutory requirement on the government to provide this type of information to its citizens. A recommendation that the administration shall inform the general population in an active and unsolicited way is, however, an integral part of the information policy guidelines from the government.[4]

Even though both public access rights for citizens and public information activities are important aspects of openness and transparency in the public sector, important differences between the two approaches exist. When individuals request access, they obtain is genuine case documents. The citizen himself must choose which documents he wants to read and interpret them in order to arrive at his own understanding of the contents. When the aim is to control the exercise of public authority, this approach has obvious advantages, because it can ensure an appropriate distance and independence between the controller and the controllee. On the other hand, this approach will present a difficult challenge for the large majority of citizens, especially in complicated case areas.

In areas where public accessibility presents too great a challenge, the requirement of public dissemination of information is a desirable and necessary means of obtaining access to intelligible information. In contrast to public access on request, public information permits the public administration itself to select and interpret the case documents. Citizens are required to act in accordance with the administration's interpretation, often without access to the original documents. Without such access, the potential for examining the validity and/or basis of the public administration's statement of the case are limited.

Public access rights and public information activities are complementary and necessary strategies which help to ensure access to information from public administration. An important part of the discussion of the influence of information and communication technology on informational openness and transparency in government administration concerns the balance and relationship between these two concepts.

3. Access to government-held information as a condition for democratic participation

Access to government-held information is essential to secure a proper level of knowledge in the general population about democratic processes. It is also a necessary requirement for the democratic control of the exercise of government authority. It is not difficult to imagine that information and communication technology will influence the degree of access to information and,as a result, the democratic process. This section addresses some of the possibilities and problems that technology may create with respect to the democratic ideal.

In Norway each citizen has a relatively broad statutory right permitting access to public case documents on request. This right has been crucial to the ability of the press to examine and criticise the public authorities on behalf of the community. Legislation, regulations and other public case documents are not protected by copyright law but can be used freely by everyone. Whereas Norway has had various instances where private parties have published public regulations, there have been relatively few incidents where case documents in the form of government recommendations, reports, etc. have been published by private organisations.[5] With web-technology, however, this could change very quickly.

The Internet and the World-wide Web have dramatically lowered the economic and practical thresholds for publication. It is now possible for the press and professional and industrial bodies to use the Internet to make case documents publicly accessible in their original form. Those bodies can legally place such documents on the Internet, accompanied by other relevant material: a possibility which may become especially attractive. In Norway, for example, there is acontinuing debate addressing the question whether or not gas power plants should be built. Environmental organisations face opposition from the majority in the Parliament (Stortinget). These environmental organisations are able to demand access to public documents relevant to the case at hand and publish them on the Internet together with their own interpretations and comments. In this way, the organisation can influence the context of the original public documents. The reasoning associated with the case documents could potentially be persuasive since the organisations' views will be directly identified with the original public documents. In that way, people will be able to link and disseminate original public documents together with their own interpretations and arguments to a much larger extent than they currently can.

Private persons publishing public case documents on the Internet could easily produce a competition for context, because the contexts the documents are placed in will influence the understanding of the texts. As a result, it will be important to place documents in the context that underlines the 'true' contents of the documents. If private parties follow such a strategy, the administration will be 'compelled' to publish case documents on the Internet in the context that it desires and accompanied by what it deems to be proper commentary and arguments. For example, the Ministry of Industry may seek to counter the environmental organisations' 'one-sided' publishing of public case documents because it disagrees with the context in which they are published by those organisations. Public administration may also be compelled to be the first to publish its case documents in order to take the initiative in an continuing debate.

The possibility for private publication of public case documents and the competition for context that private publication could bring about, is likely to have clear, positive, effects on access to government-held information. The amount of information will increase as will the number of different statements about and interpretations of documents that apply to public activities. As a result, the individual, even more so than today, will be able to choose whether to act on the basis of the original documents or in accordance with the interpretations and explanations that the administration, professional and industrial bodies, and the press make available.

A problem with this sketch of a potential development is that the public administration could lose control of its own case documents. Public authorities should not control the formation of opinion based on public case documents. It can be a problem, however, if there is uncertainty whether published public case documents adequately represent the documents prepared by the administration. Such uncertainty, for example, may arise if private persons who publish public documents do not implement adequate updating strategies or if their selection of documents is incomplete. Even if each single document is correct, the failure to update or revise and/or poor selection of documents could result in strongly misleading information. Information quality could be regulated by enforcing stricter information responsibility and by other regulatory initiatives. In the opinion of the author, however, a better strategy would be to establish good updating routines.

One way of ensuring proper selection and updating would be for the administration to offer subscriptions to public case documents to private organisations and persons. The press, professional and industrial bodies, industry and commerce, as well as individuals, might be offered the opportunity to order notices about new public case documents via the Internet. At the same time, these documents could be made available on the administrative organisation's home page for downloading by interested parties. In order for this attempt to function satisfactorily, the subscriptions must be broken down into relatively narrow case or interest areas, and it must be possible for anybody to subscribe to the information service. It is possible that such a service would be able to stimulate greater political, professional and social participation. Such a service at the municipality or local government level would in particular be likely to have a positive effect on local democracy. A potential side-effect of such a service might be that the quality of information on private web sites which concern issues in the public sector would not be dependent on the private body's capacity to keep track of new case documents and developments in the administration by constantly directing inquiries to the administration.

Important branches of government administration in Norway have created their own web pages which contain a variety of brochures as well as other forms of easily understood information (Lied M, 1996). Some departments also set forth their regulations in full text. In addition, all legislation and regulations are available through the Lawdata Foundation's information service.[6] Explanations, reports, recommendations, and some public case documents are also available on central governmental and parliamentary web-servers.[7] There is reason to assume that even more public documents will be published in the future. Such an expansion is positive because it will likely aid in creating a larger degree of access. Nevertheless, clear requirements for carrying out such publishing are necessary. I will limit myself to mentioning two effects which, in my opinion, should be avoided.

Comprehensive publication of case documents and regulations can lead to the administration exercising more control over the documents which are accessed and disseminated. 'Citizen-controlled' access on request may become weaker in relation to 'administration-controlled' publication. This might be especially true if the administration were to use the Internet to disseminate its interpretations and points of view to a large extent and at the same time continue the current restrictive application of the public access legislation.[8]

The administration's publication of legislative travaux préparatoires and white papers on the Internet follows a system which requires that all documents in the current series are made available. In a similar way, all legislation and regulations are available through web services of the Lawdata Foundation. In other respects, however, the administration's choice of case documents is determined by the government's own evaluation. This may result in an incomplete and sometimes slanted selection. The absence of fixed criteria controlling the content of the service permits a political determination as to which case documents will be released to the public and hence what interpretations are provided to the public. For example, the selection of internal reports from a department may be controlled by subjective choice. Even though it is beneficial that individual reports are available, problems may occur if the administration has unfettered discretion to withhold other reports and documents, particularly if these dossiers contradict the selected and accessible material.

The risk that the machinery of government will be able to use the Internet in a manner that gives it a dominant position in the public debate about itself, can be minimised in at least two ways. Establishing a broader publishing duty than is currently required could be considered; requiring, for example, that all reports and statements of a certain type be made available on the Internet (from government expert committees, the Office of the Auditor General, and others). In addition, public case documents should be published in accordance with criteria for the selection of documents which also should be published. This implies that rules describing the contents of the government information service should always be formulated and published. In addition, a deadline for document publication could be established. Such measures would make it difficult for the government to control publication practice through subjective, political, and tactical deliberations.

4. Access to government-held information as a condition for a public administration under the rule of law

Even though the democratic ideal is the primary justification for an open administration, the right to obtain and receive information is also very significant for other ideals of governing society. Therule of law presumes a right to access information about the public exercise of authority and a right to express views on the exercise of authority. Such information is necessary in order to obtain an overview, to foresee one's own legal position, and to take initiatives to fulfil duties and realise rights. When decisions are made by the administration, it is crucial that the individual is able to access relevant public documentation in order to verify that the decision is correct.

Our welfare state presumes that the public administration makes many decisions in individual cases. These include issues such as national insurance, taxes, and duties. Within these and many other administrative areas, a large number of similar decisions are made, making it desirable and necessary to automate parts of the decision-making process. Automation adds the requirement that rules of law in legislation, contracts, etc. are "translated" to computer programs. In order for this to occur, the rules must first be interpreted. It is these interpretations which are represented in computer programs and which almost without exception form the basis for the individual decisions made by the administrative authorities. In that way, the rules expressed in the programs, rather than the rules in the original text, are decisive for the exercise of public authority. One reason why few have noticed this development is that legal rules in programs are not seen; they exist in the form of program code and are applied only in 'black boxes.'

In the author's opinion, one of the largest threats to access to government-held information is the tendency for the exercise of public authority to become encapsulated in computer systems. The problem is particularly associated with the absence of documentation of the contents of the legal rules in the programs. In the past, it was not uncommon that such documentation was completely missing (Schartum D W; 1995a, pp. 151-192). Today documentation will often be found, but it is understandable only by a limited number of people, and the documentation is rarely linked to the legislation. on which programs are based. This implies that it is very difficult to check the legality of the programs: Do the programs perform their function accurately? Do they contain correct interpretations? The point is that without legal documentation it is very difficult to have ascertain any comprehensive and systematic information about the application of the law found in the computer programs. It is obvious that the underlying legal rules must be clear, accessible and unbiased.

One can point out that such detailed knowledge of the application of the law has never be possible before. With manual application of the law, statutory rules and other regulations are interpreted on a case-by-case basis. Apart from the decision itself, we do not know anything about which detailed interpretations are relied upon by the officer in charge of the case. Thus, we are dependent on interpreting the rules ourselves to reveal the disparities in the results, find explanations for those disparities, and argue for our position. This is also true when the application of law is automated. The difference, however, is that as a condition for automation, general rules must be formulated to express unambiguously the correct understanding of the legislation in question. Those responsible for creating the system make many general decisions which are intended to cover most distinctive characteristics of each possible individual case. When authority is exercised in this way, and knowledge about the legal contents of computerised exercise of public authority is available in the administration, the ideal of access to government-held information implies that it is imperative that anyone can obtain this information.

Another concern arises when one considers how automation can actually influence people's interest in obtaining information about the public exercise of authority. 'Service' in public administration is a concept which expresses appropriate behaviour towards citizens. Service may, however, also have pacifying effects and lead to more uninterested and ignorant citizens than today. Since the early 1980s, Norwegian administration has worked to increase the level of service to parties and the public in general. This has resulted in the administration placing more weight on users' wishes and opinions than in the past. This behaviour has not only evolved within services in the public sector but also within the public exercise of authority. While a doctor can hardly provide competent medical services for a patient without the patient's involvement, the tax office can currently make good tax decisions without the taxpayer's input. For the tax office, the taxpayer is primarily an information source. If other sources providing the same information are found, the taxpayer, for all practical purposes, becomes redundant.

When the goal is to make quick and correct decisions, the citizen may be perceived to be a nuisance because the information he gives is generally unreliable. He or she does not have the necessary expertise about the regulations and is usually interested in obtaining a decision favourable to his or her particular interests. Additionally citizens are not always accurate reporters or record keepers; they forget information; make other formal mistakes; and they may not always comply with deadlines. Information and communication technology may soon make it possible for the government to eliminate the private party as a direct participant in many individual cases. Instead of asking citizens about income and capital information, family affairs, and so on, that information can be collected from the databases held by employers, banks, or insurance companies. Instead of relying on a large number of 'untrained' individuals, the administration can rely on similarly disposed, large and technologically advanced organisations which operate in the same way and which can deliver data more quickly, more accurately, and more cheaply than it is currently compiled.

For the taxpayer, it is not only important that automation may result in quicker and more accurate tax claims, but that it also eliminates the need to fill out the tax return and removes the individual from the decision-making process itself. Even though the taxpayer's formal responsibility remains roughly the same as before, the result is that the information from many databases becomes the basis for decisions without further input from the tax payer (Schartum D W; 1995b). For many, such reform is an example of the best possible service, because it eliminates the unpleasant task of interpreting the regulations that describe their tax duty. On the other hand, it may be claimed that the rule of law principle, to a large extent, requires actively participating citizens.

In order to enjoy the right to access information, the right to contradict, the right to receive guidance and grounds for decisions etc., the citizen must have the necessary interest and knowledge to make him capable of collecting information concerning his legal position. The rule of law does not promise a recumbent relationship to the public administration but requires considerable motivation. Information and communication technology can be used to considerably reduce the burden on the individual. When the administration chooses to obtain case information from databases instead of directly from the citizen, the result may be that fewer people request access to and understand the administrative decisions which affect them. A further consequence may be that general knowledge about public administration will decrease as the processes become more automatic. A decrease in general knowledge may eventually erode the perception and awareness and may lead to less effective inquiry and participation in debates about the fairness of the systems for taxation, national insurance, and other central administrative areas.

5. Access to government-held information as a condition for data protection

The data protection ideal is founded on the basic idea that the individual should be able to control the use of personal information about himself. An important aspect of data protection is the right to limit the dissemination of personal information in accordance with the person's desires and needs. Another important element is the individual's right of access during the processing of personal information. Access rights must be seen as necessary in order to make individuals capable of exercising a right to decide issues regarding personal information in a rational way. Furthermore, access assures adequate data and maintains the quality of personal information.

The EU directive on the protection of individuals with regard to the processing of personal data and on the free movement of such data (95/46/EC) must be implemented before October 1998 (cf. art. 32). Many European countries are currently revising their legislation to comply with the new requirements. Article 12 of the Directive, which addresses the right of access, will result in more extensive rights in many countries. The Norwegian proposal for an amendment is in harmony with the Directive in that it provides more comprehensive general information about the processing of personal information than current Norwegian legislation. It has also been established that a publicly available survey of the processing of personal information which is notifiable or subject to licensing shall be established. The provisions dealing with the obligation to submit notifications are broadly worded and cover the processing of personal information within many important fields. In addition, an expanded right of access to personal information about oneself is provided. Rights to access in accordance with the proposed revised legislation is therefore relatively comprehensive. The reform entails that a new set of rules be introduced to supplement the existing rules addressing access in public administration.[9]

6. An overall view on access rights to government-held information

Each of the three government ideals identified in the introduction have been given 'their own' set of access rules. Access rights for each citizen to the public's case documents are primarily based upon the democratic ideal, because that promotes effective public debate and the control of the public exercise of authority. The 'registered person's' access rights are primarily associated with the data protection ideal and with the individual's interest in determining how personal information and data are used in order to protect personal integrity, private life and the quality of the information. The access rights of the parties to individual cases are primarily associated with the rule of law ideal because it makes it easier for private parties to guard their legal interests, including revealing incorrect decisions and abuse of authority.

The fact that different access rules have different ideological grounds and references does not necessarily mean that they limit the function that the rights of access actually have. Access under the Personal Data Registers Act can of course be used just as much as a supplement to the access rights for parties and thereby strengthen the legal protection of individuals. Similarly, it is clear that the general access provided under the Personal Data Registers Act is not just the basis for improved evaluations of the measures adopted the individual to protect his private life. Such a right to access will also be a supplement to the legislation giving access rights to every citizen. It could be queried whether access rights according to the Public Information Access Act encompass information concerning the government case-processing systems, the types of personal information processed by such systems, sources used and so on. Today the conclusion is not obvious. After the revised data protection legislation has come into force, however, it will be beyond doubt that such information will be available for everyone.

7. A Transparent Public Sector for the Future

Above I have pointed out some problems for access to government-held information. I have also attempted to identify some possible efforts which may increase the citizens' access to information. A list of other concrete initiatives which flow from these general concepts could have been covered. In conclusion, however, I will restrict myself to suggesting three more basic ways of tackling the situation in order to promote the objective of an open and transparent public sector.

7.1 Public Access to Computer Systems

Until now the ideal of public access has been reflected in access to documents (information) and meetings (e.g. parliament meetings, open court hearings etc.). In the author's opinion, there is a need to evaluate carefully whether or not future access rights should also cover computer systems. In other words public access to computer systems ought to supplement access to documents and meetings.[10] Public access to computer systems would include at least two essential elements. First, it must contain adequate descriptions of system solutions and provide public access to these descriptions. Second, it must provide access for everybody to utilise those system solutions for their own objectives. These two elements are interwoven because in order to provide an adequate description of the system, integrated in or in addition to the system itself, it will also be necessary to establish an effective format for a rational use of the system for outsiders.

The claim for public access to computer systems can be justified in different ways. I will outline two of the most central grounds. First, many public systems contain data from decisions which have a considerable impact on citizens' legal and social standing. A case-processing system which contains a detailed explanation of how authority will be exercised constitutes a central type of system solution which should be covered by public access to computer systems. Systems which affect people in more indirect ways should also be accessible to the public. For example, systems should be included if they are used by the government, contain socio-economic and other models, and are used to make plans or to underpin decisions regarding social and political development. In a future democratic perspective, knowledge of such models' existence and contents will be significant. With such knowledge, it will be easier to argue for or against the viability of the interpretation and terms which are used. It will also be important that people other than public authorities can use the system to try out diverging assumptions and to simulate effects of an alternative policy. A central point is that the factual and theoretical basis for important parts of the modern policy is so comprehensive and complicated that advanced analysis systems are needed to promote political proposals if they should be comprehended as well-founded. If, for example, the government publishes estimations which demonstrate the effects that increased public consumption will have on the economy, it will be difficult to develop a basis for other conclusions without 1) knowing the model and being able to demonstrate its shortcomings, 2) knowing the underlying assumptions or premises which are used in the model, or 3) having an alternative system with a model perceived to be equivalent to the one the government has employed. Alternatives 1 and 2 presume public access to computer systems. Alternative 3 requires greater resources and/or expertise than is needed in the first two alternatives.

The second ground for public access to computer systems applies to possible changes in the power structure between public officials and citizens. The automation of public exercise of power considerably improves the authorities' ability to process large quantities of information, for example in the form of regulations, numbers, facts, or political documents. This speeds the processes of finding, obtaining, applying, and forwarding information, and thus speeds up decision-making. The citizens are dependent on software and information services available in the general market. Although some central public documents will be made accessible via the World-wide Web, one must assume that the government's ability to manage information relevant to government is about to be significantly increased as compared to the citizen's ability to do the same. Such differences may be so substantial that feelings of powerlessness may arise among groups that do not have access to the same systems that the public authorities have and are using. Computer system make it easier for public authorities to reach conclusions quickly and certainly on the basis of large dossiers. A person performing the same operation manually will use much more time and will have a much greater risk of failure. Within a democracy citizens should not be left as pedestrians when the authorities drive limousines.

7.2 Open Public Archives

The government's archives and case documents are contained in its buildings and computers. They are protected in that permission is required to obtain access to them. The rules providing public access to public case documents are subject to government discretion in that someone must determine whether access will be given in the individual case. This condition gives a large degree of control to the government. In addition the government publishes rules of law and travaux préparatoires. Traditionally this has occurred with the help of publications with relatively little public dissemination and is largely an internal governmental process. Today a large number of these documents, however, are published on free, accessible web pages. This more widespread publication represents an important step because it contributes to larger dissemination of knowledge about the political and administrative authority, which can be a strong incentive to democratic participation.

Publication on the Internet has not been limited, however, to rules of law and the most important policy documents. Rather the administration has also begun to publish politicians' speeches, reports, etc. This is material which does not belong to publication series, but which would have been subject to a right to access due to the Public Information Access Act. Instead of being burdened with the need to provide documents to each person requesting them, the government may make the documents generally available through publication on the Internet. Such publication not only eases the practical work load of dispersing this information, but will likely increase the number of copies that are dispersed.

If we follow this idea to its logical conclusion, we should consider creating a system where the authorities establish open public archives, i.e. collections of publicly available documents which can be accessed by everybody without the burden of requesting individual permission from a public organisation. This type of system would dramatically increase the accessibility of public case documents. While a number of documents are already available through Internet services in many different countries' governments and in international organisations, these services generally contain documents in fixed organised series (public explanations, bills, directives, etc.). A person, however, does not need to demand that these documents be delivered in accordance with public access legislation, because they have been published on paper for a long period of time. Many other documents which until now have not been published, but to which people have a right to access on request, should be placed in an open public archive. Public authorities would need to determine whether access will be allowed on a general basis. Nevertheless there will always be some documents to which one will only be able to gain access on a case-by-case basis involving a concrete evaluation. The goal should be to make the majority of documents which can be subject to free access available on the Internet.

An arrangement with open public archives will change the balance between public access on request and access through discretionary publication. As mentioned earlier it will be important to prevent the authorities from becoming too influential in determining which documents are published and therefore receive attention which can affect the political agenda (see supra section 3). The claim that the government should follow definite criteria in choosing which documents will be published is one possibility. Another possibility is always to lay out the documents to which some people demand access under the Public Information Access Act in a public archive on the net. In this way, individual citizens and the press will influence the government's publication practice.

7.3 Social Information Networks

In trying to describe the information society, we often emphasise the fact that information and communication technology tie people together, for example with help of the Internet and the electronic superhighway. Disparity in access to such networks creates a risk of disparity in ease of access to information and the possibility for undue influence and bias. The significance of electronic networks in providing wide-ranging information access in the society can not be underestimated. Nevertheless it is significant to view such information channels in relation to other channels and more traditional technology. The most basic observation is that the users of the Internet, that is those who have particularly good access to information, are social participants who are integral parts of different social contexts. These social relations can be 'casual', or they can apply to more fixed structures and organisations. Our society is for the most part thoroughly organised, e.g. in business activities, public and private services, private interest organisations, political organisations, etc. Each of us belongs to one or more of these organisations, and within these communities, valuable expertise and experience is exchanged. People who are members of trade unions are concerned with working and wage conditions, rights to unemployment benefits etc. Patient organisations are occupied with public and private health service arrangements, rights for members etc. Thus it is important to realise that such organisations constitute social information networks, or channels for the dispersion and development of expertise and experience within specialised fields. Conversations, meetings and membership magazines are the social networks' most important information channels. Word processing software, the photocopier and the franking machine are among the most important technologies they use.

In order for the government to derive the largest possible effect from the electronic networks, and thereby avoid disparity in people's access to information, governments should use the Internet in a way that is directed towards the junctions in the social information nets. Rather than direct information to individuals, government authorities ought to consider directing their information-dispersing services on Internet to the trade union offices, banks, industry and commerce organisations, nature conservation groups and other organisations in which individuals participate. In this way the government will enable people at these junctions to provide more complete and updated information than they currently can. In combination with public access to computer systems and open public archives, information and communication technology will help to enable all these social information networks to be professional users of public information and computer systems. If one also assumes that access to information from private organisations will improve, this will also contribute to a more independent use of public information by citizens. Moreover, one will have the ability to choose whether to seek advice from an administrative organisation, a private organisation, or both.

8. Conclusion

Of course many reservations and exceptions should be made in implementing some of the initiatives I have sketched here. What is important, however, is to launch ideas of reform which are more than mere adjustments of the current situation. Our thoughts about information and communication technology ought to reflect an active attitude to technology's role in the efforts to increase the degree of access to government-held information.

Bibliography

Administrasjonsdepartementet: Statlig informasjonspolitikk: Hovedprinsipper, desember 1994. (Political principles for a government information policy, in Norwegian, Ministry of Administration).

Aftenposten Newspaper: http://www.aftenposten.no/nyheter/iriks/d19485.htm (News referring a strict access policy by the Norwegian government, in Norwegian).

DG XIII LEGASSIST95B: Access to Public Sector Information (discussion paper:.Prins, Vunderink, van der Klaauw-Koops and Zwenne)

Lied M (1996): Offentlig elektronisk informasjon - en oversikt; (Report with an investigation of the use of Web-sites in Norwegian government administration, in Norwegian).<http://www.jus.uio.no/iri/afin/dok/pub/artikler/not5_96.htm>

Lov av 19. juni 1970 nr 69, SS 2 (Public Access Act, main rule, in Norwegian).

NOU 1997: 19, English summary <http://odin.dep.no/nou/1997-19/ved01.htm>

Schartum D W (1995a) 'Dirt in the Machinery of Government? Legal Challenges Connected to Computerised Case-Processing in Public Administration' in Bing, J and Torvund, O (eds.) 25 years Anniversary Anthology, Norwegian Research Centre for Computers and Law,(Tano, Oslo) 151 - 92.

Schartum D W (1995b) 'Forenklet selvangivelse - en for enkel selvangivelse?' in Utvalget, instalment 5, 1089-1122; (Article about the reform of the tax return system, in Norwegian).

Links

Lovdata Foundation: <http://www.lovdata.no/eng/index.html>.

Norwegian Parliament's (Stortinget): <http://www.stortinget.no/info/eng/engpag.htm>

'Official Information and Documentation from Norway ('ODIN'): <http://odin.dep.no/html/english/>

Footnotes

[1] Thanks to Jason Hoida for valuable translations and assistance with the English language.

[2] See for example the discussion in 'Access to Public Sector Information', discussion paper, DG XIII LEGASSIST95B.

[3] It is also necessary to emphasise the need for a legal policy discussion about freedom of information within the private sector, but this issue is not discussed in this article.

[4] See: Ministry of Administration: Government Information Policy. Main Principles. December 1994. (Administrasjonsdepartementet: Statlig informasjonspolitik: Hovedprinsipper. Desember 1994.)

[5] For documents that contain information subject to professional secrecy (concerning natural persons, enterprises, etc.), access to the remaining parts of the document can oftentimes be given.

[6] The Lawdata Foundation is private, but works closely with the Prime Minister's office in announcing legislation and regulations and in operating a comprehensive legal information system that covers all central sources of law. Lawdata's web services are free, and the remaining services are priced. For information in English about Lawdata see <http://www.lovdata.no/eng/index.html>

[7] See 'Official Documentation and Information from Norway ('ODIN') <http://odin.dep.no/html/english/> and the Norwegian Parliament's (Stortinget) web site <http://www.stortinget.no/info/eng/engpag.htm>.

[8] See e.g., <http://www.aftenposten.no/nyheter/iriks/d19485.htm>.

[9] According to the current legislation, a right to access to general information and information about oneself does exist. The general access right applies however only to the public sector and comprises far fewer types of information in relation to the proposal for amended legislation.

[10] Some aspects of public access to computer systems, which I propose, raise copyright issues which can set boundaries on the extent to which such publicity can be implemented.

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