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Draft Open Data Policy for Qatar

Rayna Stamboliyska - April 24, 2014 in Open Government Data, Open Knowledge Foundation Local Groups, Open MENA, Open Standards, Policy

The following post was originally published on the blog of our Open MENA community (Middle East and North Africa).

The Qatari Ministry of Information and Communication Technologies (generally referred to as ictQATAR) had launched a public consultation on its draft Open Data Policy. I thus decided to briefly present a (long overdue) outline of Qatar’s Open Data status prior to providing a few insights of the current Policy document.

Public sector Open Data in Qatar: current status

Due to time constraints, I did not get the chance to properly assess public sector openness for the 2013 edition of the Open Data Index (I served as the MENA editor). My general remarks are as follows (valid both end of October 2013 and today):

  • Transport timetables exist online and in digital form but are solely available through non-governmental channels and are in no way available as Open Data. The data is thus neither machine-readable nor freely accessible — as per the Open Definition, — nor regularly updated.
  • Government budget, government spending and elections results are nowhere to be found online. Although there are no elections in the country (hence no election results to be found; Qatar lacks elected Parliament), government budget and spending theoretically exist.
  • Company register is curated by the Qatar Financial Centre Authority, is available online for anyone to read and seems to be up-to-date. Yet, the data is not available for download in anything other than PDF (not a machine-readable format) and is not openly licensed which severely restricts any use one could decide to make out of it.
  • National statistics seem to be partly available online through the Qatar Information Exchange office. The data does not, however, seem to be up-to-date, is mostly enclosed in PDFs and is not openly licensed.
  • Legislation content is provided online by Al-Meezan, the Qatari Legal Portal. Although data seems available in digital form, it does not seem to be up-to-date (no results for 2014 regardless of the query). The licensing of the website is not very clear as the mentions include both “copyright State of Qatar” and “CC-by 3.0 Unported”.
  • Postcodes/Zipcodes seem to be provided through the Qatar Postal Services yet the service does not seem to provide a list of all postcodes or a bulk download. The data, if we assume it’s available, is not openly licensed.
  • National map at a scale of 1:250,000 or better (1cm = 2.5km) is nowhere to be found online, at least I did not manage to (correct me if I am wrong).
  • Emissions of pollutants data is not available through the Ministry of Environment. (Such data is defined as “aggregate data about the emission of air pollutants, especially those potentially harmful to human health. “Aggregate” means national-level or more detailed, and on an annual basis or more often. Standard examples of relevant pollutants would be carbon monoxides, nitrogen oxides, or particulate matter.”)

This assessment would produce an overall score of 160 (as per the Open Data Index criteria) which would rank Qatar at the same place as Bahrain, that is much lower than other MENA states (e.g., Egypt and Tunisia). A national portal exists but it does not seem to comprehend what open format and licensing mean as data is solely provided as PDFs and Excel sheets, and is the property of the Government. (The portal basically redirects the user to the aforementioned country’s national statistics website.) Lastly, information requests can be made through the portal.

The 2013 edition of the Open Data Barometer provides a complementary insight and addresses the crucial questions of readiness and outreach:

[There is] strong government technology capacity, but much more limited civil society and private sector readiness to secure benefits from open data. Without strong foundations of civil society freedoms, the Right to Information and Data Protection, it is likely to be far harder for transparency and accountability benefits of open data to be secured. The region has also seen very little support for innovation with open data, suggesting the economic potential of open data will also be hard to realise. This raises questions about the motivation and drivers for the launch of open data portals and platforms.

Screenshot from the Open Data Barometer 2013.

2014 Open Data Policy draft

Given the above assessment, I was pleasantly surprised to discover that a draft Open Data Policy is being composed by ictQATAR. The document sets the record straight from the beginning:

Information collected by or for the government is a national resource which should be managed for public purposes. Such information should be freely available for anyone to use unless there are compelling privacy, confidentiality or security considerations by the government. [...] Opening up government data and information is a key foundation to creating a knowledge based economy and society. Releasing up government-held datasets and providing raw data to their citizens, will allow them to transform data and information into tools and applications that help individuals and communities; and to promote partnerships with government to create innovative solutions.

The draft Policy paper then outlines that “all Government Agencies will put in place measures to release information and data”. The ictQATAR will be in charge of coordinating those efforts and each agency will need to nominate a senior manager internally to handle the implementation of the Open Data policy through the identification and release of datasets as well as the follow-up on requests to be addressed by citizens. The Policy emphasizes that “each agency will have to announce its “Terms of Use” for the public to re-use the data, requirement is at no fees”.

The Policy paper also indicates how the national Open Data portal will operate. It will be “an index to serve as gateway to public for dataset discovery and search, and shall redirect to respective Government Agencies’ data source or webpage for download”. Which clearly indicates that each individual Agency will need to create own website where the data will be released and maintained.

The proposed national Open Data portal is also suggested to operate as an aggregator of “all public feedback and requests, and the government agencies’ responses to the same”. Alongside, the portal will continue to allow the public to submit information requests (as per the freedom of information framework in the country). This is an interesting de facto implementation of the Freedom of Information Act Qatar still lacks.

The draft Policy further states:

Where an Agency decides to make information available to the public on a routine basis, it should do so in a manner that makes the information available to a wide range of users with no requirement for registration, and in a non-proprietary, non-exclusive format.

This is an interesting remark and constitutes one of my main points of criticism to the proposed paper. The latter neither contains a mention about what the recommended formats should be nor about licensing. Thus, one is left wondering whether the Agencies should just continue to stick to Microsoft Excel and PDF formats. If these were adopted as the default formats, then the released data would not be truly open as none of these two formats is considered open and the files are not machine-readable (a pre-requisite for data to be defined as open). Indeed, instead of going for a lengthy description of various formats, it would have been much more useful to elaborate on preferred format, e.g. CSV.

An additional concern is the lack of mention of a license. Even though the Policy paper does a great job emphasizing that the forthcoming data needs to be open for anyone to access, use, reuse and adapt, it makes no mention whatsoever about the envisioned licensing. Would the latter rely on existing Creative Commons licenses? Or would the ictQATAR craft its own license as have done other governments across the world?

An additional reason for concern is the unclear status of payment to access data. Indeed, the Policy paper mentions at least three times (sections 4.2 (i); 4.4 (ii); Appendix 6, ‘Pricing Framework’ indicator) that the data has to be provided at no cost. Yet, the Consultation formulates the question:

Open Data should be provided free of charge where appropriate, to encourage its widespread use. However, where is it not possible, should such data be chargeable and if so, what are such datasets and how should they be charged to ensure they are reasonable?

This question indicates that financial participation from potential users is considered probable. If such a situation materialized, this would be damaging for the promising Open Data Policy as paying to access data is one of the greatest barriers to access to information (regardless of how low the fee might be). Thus, if the data is provided at a cost, it is not Open Data anymore as by definition, Open Data is data accessible at no cost for everyone.

My personal impression is that the Policy draft is a step in the right direction. Yet the success of such a policy, if implemented, remains very much dependent on the willingness of the legislator to enable a shift towards increased transparency and accountability. My concerns stem from the fact that the national legislation has precedence over ictQATAR’s policy frameworks which may make it very difficult to achieve a satisfactory Open Data shift. The Policy draft states:

Agencies may also develop criteria at their discretion for prioritizing the opening of data assets, accounting for a range of factors, such as the volume and quality of datasets, user demand, internal management priorities, and Agency mission relevance, usefulness to the public, etc.

The possibility that an Agency might decide to not open up data because it would be deemed potentially harmful to the country’s image or suchlike is real. Given that no Freedom of Information Act exists, there is no possible appeal mechanism allowing to challenge a negative decision citing public interest as outweighing deemed security concerns. The real test for how committed to openness and transparency the government and its Agencies are will come at that time.

The Appendix 6 is thus very imprecise regarding the legal and security constraints that might prevent opening up public sector data. Furthermore, the precedence of the national legislation should not be neglected: it for ex. prohibits any auditing or data release related to contracting and procurement; no tenders are published for public scrutiny. Although the country has recently established national general anti-corruption institutions, there is a lack of oversight of the Emir’s decisions. According to Transparency International Government Defence Anti-Corruption Index 2013, “the legislature is not informed of spending on secret items, nor does it view audit reports of defence spending and off-budget expenditure is difficult to measure”.

Note: I have responded to the consultation in my personal capacity (not as OpenMENA). Additional insights are to be read which I have chosen not to feature here.

Britain ‘shines light of transparency’ on secret lobbying. Just kidding.

Jonathan Gray - January 28, 2014 in Campaigning, Featured, Open Government Data, Policy, Transparency

The following article is cross-posted from OpenDemocracy.

David Cameron’s lobbying bill exposes the hollowness of his muscular claims about cracking down on crony capitalism. Britain’s democracy remains under corporate capture.

influenceindustry Image: Government wants to register Lobbying Agencies alone (Alliance for Lobbying Transparency)

Today the government’s proposed Lobbying Bill will go into parliamentary ping-pong between the House of Commons and the House of Lords. If this Bill passes without significant amendments it will do nothing to stop secret corporate lobbying, making a mockery of the coalition’s open government aspirations.

Every year an estimated £2 billion is spent attempting to influence decisions in Westminster, an amount that is topped only by spending in Washington and Brussels. Even more than its counterparts across the channel and across the pond, London’s lobbying industry has been able to operate in the dark, free from scrutiny and interference: unregulated, unrecorded and unimpeded.

Four years ago next month, just before the 2010 general election, David Cameron announced his intention, if elected, to tackle the “unhealthy influence” of “secret corporate lobbying”. He pledged to “sort out” what he called “crony capitalism”, to shine the “light of transparency” on lobbying, and to force our political system to “come clean about who is buying power and influence”.

The theme of his speech was “rebuilding trust in politics”. He attacked then Prime Minister Gordon Brown’s “secretive, power-hoarding, controlling” government, and its handling of the 2009 parliamentary expenses scandal.

Transparency has since become a major theme of the coalition government under Cameron, who has claimed repeatedly that he wants to “fix our broken politics” and make the UK “the most open and transparent government in the world”.

Fast forward to the government’s proposed lobbying bill, tabled for discussion in parliament today. The second part of the bill has been widely criticised for gagging charities during election periods. The first part, which outlines plans for the lobbying registry, has received less public attention.

Far from shining a light on the activities of the influence industry, the proposed registry would exclude the vast majority of commercial lobbyists, covering as little as 5 per cent of all lobbying activity. Among the excluded, all ‘in-house’ lobbyists — those based at major corporations, banks, consultancies, law firms, accountancy firms. Even the registered lobbyists would not be required to give the public information about what they are asking for, who they are meeting with, or how much they are spending.

How do the government’s proposals compare with a real statutory register of lobbyists? Here’s an illustration from The Alliance for Lobbying Transparency:

registerproposals

Unless it is scrapped and rewritten or major amendments are made – both exceedingly unlikely – the lobbying bill will make a mockery of the UK’s open government purported aspirations. It will leave the British public none the wiser as to how big money and big business are distorting the fabric of public political discourse and decision-making, and to what end. It will do nothing to shed light on how powerful corporate interests are exerting their influence to shape what is politically possible and politically likely – from inaction on climate change and corporate tax avoidance, to fracking, energy prices and the privatisation of public services.

Even a decent registry of lobbyists would give us just a faint sketch of the impact of corporate lobbying on our democracy. The fight for transparency is just a first step that must not distract us from the bigger and more important fight to push back against the malign, distorting, anti-democratic influence of big money and big business on politics.

The passage of the proposed lobbying bill into law would represent a manifest failure of the current government to take even the most elementary of steps to live up to its pre-election promises to tackle secret corporate influence. It will no doubt be remembered as an historic missed opportunity and an astonishing defeat at the first hurdle – making the UK’s claims to global leadership in government openness and accountability look like a joke.

The Open Knowledge Foundation and the Alliance for Lobbying Transparency have launched a petition asking the UK government to scrap and rewrite the lobbying bill. You can sign here. It is endorsed by Access Info, the Campaign for Freedom of Information, Campaign for Press and Broadcasting Freedom, Corporate Europe Observatory, Corporate Watch, Greenpeace, Integrity Action, Involve, the Open Rights Group, Spinwatch, the Sunlight Foundation, Unlock Democracy, War on Want and the World Development Movement.

The Open Knowledge Foundation urges the UK Government to stop secret corporate lobbying

Jonathan Gray - December 13, 2013 in Business, Campaigning, Featured, Legal, Open Government Data, Policy

The Open Knowledge Foundation has joined the members of the UK OGP civil society network in signing an open letter which calls on the Government to put an end to secret corporate lobbying.

In its current form the government’s proposed lobbying bill (which is currently going through parliament) will let the vast majority of corporate lobbyists off the hook from being obliged to say who they’re meeting, what decisions they are seeking to influence and how much they are spending. Here are our five reasons why we think this needs to change. If you agree with us, then please sign and share the petition!.

The letter urges Ministers to redraft the Transparency of Lobbying, Non-Party Campaigning and Trades Union Administration Bill in order to enable proper public scrutiny of lobbying activity in the UK. Please share this letter (copied below) widely and sign the petition to call on the Government to put a stop to secret lobbying.

The Rt Hon Francis Maude MP
The Rt Hon Andrew Lansley MP
Cabinet Office
70 Whitehall
London
SW1A 2AS

Cc: Deputy Prime Minister
12 December 2013

Dear Mr Maude and Mr Lansley,

Response to Mr Maude’s letter of 1 November 2013 to the UK OGP civil society network re the Government’s commitment to lobbying transparency

As campaigners for greater openness in decision making, we applauded the Coalition commitment in May 2010 to ‘regulate lobbying through introducing a statutory register of lobbyists and ensuring greater transparency’. However, we are extremely concerned that the current plans, in Part 1 of the Transparency of Lobbying, Non-Party Campaigning and Trades Union Administration Bill, will fail to deliver the transparency promised. The proposed register is not fit-for-purpose. In the short time the Government has allowed for debate on the bill, it has been heavily criticised by the Political and Constitutional Reform Select Committee and Members of Parliament, as well as representatives of the consultancy industry and a wide range of civil society groups.

We urge you to redraft Part 1 of the Bill to:

  • broaden the definition of lobbyist to include all third party consultants and in-house lobbyists, whether corporate, union or charity;
  • extend the definition to include lobbying of mid-ranking civil servants and special advisors; and
  • introduce fuller disclosure requirements to include the target, topic and estimated cost of lobbying activity.

Central to our concerns is the narrow definition of lobbyist. As drafted, the Bill excludes at least eighty per cent of the industry, notably in-house lobbyists. It will also exclude most key consultant lobbyists through a significant loophole: those who in the course of their lobbying do not make contact with Ministers and Permanent Secretaries will not be required to register. This, as lobbyists and the lobbied well know, is the majority of lobbying activity. The justification for such a narrow definition does not stand up to scrutiny. The Government has defined the problem as a lack of transparency about who an agency is representing when it meets with a Minister. Official meeting lists reveal that this would apply to only a handful of meetings. As many in Parliament have pointed out, if this is a genuine problem, it would be better solved with improved disclosure from Ministers.

Of equal concern to us is the lack of any meaningful information on lobbying activity to be included in the proposed register. It would require lobbyists merely to register their clients, but reveal nothing of their interaction with government (i.e. whom they are lobbying, and what they are seeking to influence). This information is essential if the government is to realise its laudable aim through the register of ‘increasing public accountability and public trust in the UK system of government and improving the efficiency of government policy outcomes’. Fuller disclosure would also bring the UK in line with international standards.

The fundamental purpose of introducing a register of lobbyists is to allow the public to examine and understand the activities of lobbyists, to improve government accountability and ultimately to rebuild public trust. It is imperative to have in mind the widely held public perception of how decisions are taken by government, a view summed up by David Cameron as ‘a cosy club at the top making decisions in its own interest’. This lack of trust must be of serious concern to Government. Proper disclosure rules for lobbyists would go a long way to dispel this perception. The reality of lobbying in the UK, which would be revealed in a robust register of lobbyists, would be far more mundane than is popularly imagined. A refusal to introduce genuine transparency, however, would only reinforce the perception that public scrutiny is something politicians would rather avoid.

The shortcomings of the current Bill are all the more surprising considering the leadership you have shown through the Open Government Partnership and your vocal support for greater transparency. The current proposals threaten to undermine not only your ambition to be ‘the most open and transparent government in the world’, but also detract from the OGP initiative. Civil society groups long ago identified a robust register as a key priority for the Partnership, yet we encountered a surprising reluctance from some Cabinet Office officials to engage with us during the development of the proposals. The result is a register that is wholly inadequate.

The Coalition rightly identified ‘secret’ lobbying as an issue of public concern, one which ‘goes to the heart of why people are so fed up with politics’. ‘We can’t go on like this,’ said David Cameron. We urge you to now fulfil your commitment with a proper register which will allow public scrutiny of lobbying activity in the UK.

Yours sincerely,

Alexandra Runswick, Director, Unlock Democracy
Dr Andy Williamson FRSA, Founder, FutureDigital & Chair, Ivo.org
Anne Thurston, Director, International Records Management Trust
Anthony Zacharzewski, democracy campaigner
Gavin Hayman, Director of Campaigns, Global Witness
Graham Gordon, Head of Public Policy, CAFOD
Jonathan Gray, Director of Policy, The Open Knowledge Foundation
Maurice Frankel, Director, Campaign for Freedom of Information
Miles Litvinoff, Coordinator, Publish What You Pay UK
Simon Burall, Director, Involve
Tamasin Cave, Director, Spinwatch
Thomas Hughes, Executive Director, ARTICLE 19

The Open Knowledge Foundation opposes copyright term extensions in TPP negotiations

Jonathan Gray - December 10, 2013 in Campaigning, Policy

The Open Knowledge Foundation has joined a group of civil society organisations and activists from around the world in an open letter opposing proposals to increase the duration of copyright as part of the controversial Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) negotiations.

This follows on from another recent letter asking for greater openness around the TPP negotiations, which have been widely criticised for their lack of transparency or democratic accountability.

An excerpt from the letter is reproduced below.

Dear TPP negotiators,

In a December 7-10 meeting in Singapore you will be asked to endorse a binding obligation to grant copyright protection for 70 years after the death of an author. We urge you to reject the life + 70 year term for copyright.

There is no benefit to society of extending copyright beyond the 50 years mandated by the WTO. While some TPP countries, like the United States, Mexico, Peru, Chile, Singapore or Australia, already have life + 70 (or longer) copyright terms, there is growing recognition that such terms were a mistake, and should be shortened, or modified by requiring formalities for the extended periods.

The primary harm from the life + 70 copyright term is the loss of access to countless books, newspapers, pamphlets, photographs, films, sound recordings and other works that are “owned” but largely not commercialized, forgotten, and lost. The extended terms are also costly to consumers and performers, while benefiting persons and corporate owners that had nothing to do with the creation of the work. Life + 70 is a mistake, and it will be an embarrassment to enshrine this mistake into the largest regional trade agreement ever negotiated.

Sincerely,

Organizations:

American Archivists (SAA)
American Library Association (ALA)
ARTICLE 19
Association for Progressive Communications
Association of Research Libraries (ARL)
Australian Library and Information Association (ALIA)
CIPPIC, the Samuelson-Glushko Canadian Internet Policy & Public Interest Clinic, University of Ottawa, Faculty of Law
Communia Association
Consumers International
Creative Commons
Creative Freedom Foundation
Derechos Digitales
Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF)
Electronic Information for Libraries (EIFL)
Free Software Foundation (FSF)
Gene Ethics
International Federation of Library Associations (IFLA)
Internet Archive
Knowledge Ecology International (KEI)
Modern Poland Foundation
Movement for the Internet Active Users
New Media Rights
Open Knowledge Foundation
OpenMedia.org
Pirate Party Australia
Public Citizen
Public Knowledge (PK)
Wikimedia Foundation
Young Pirates of Europe

Announcing Sunlight’s international lobbying disclosure guidelines

Guest - December 3, 2013 in Policy, Transparency

This is a cross-post by Julia Keserű, Lisa Rosenberg and Greg Brown from the Sunlight Foundation, originally published on the Sunlight Foundation blog.

With more and more civil society organizations in the open government universe recognizing that “thorny issues” — such as political finance transparency or surveillance — need to be tackled somewhat more vehemently, we are eager to seize the momentum and start a hopefully constructive dialogue around an embarrassingly under- or unregulated area: lobbying disclosure. A few weeks back, with the support of our friends at the Open Knowledge Foundation, we took the first steps to create a community of interested advocates, activists and academics, and launched a public working group around the world of influence.

Today, we are excited to announce our draft lobbying disclosure guidelines and invite the community to provide input on these recommendations.

The world of influence

Around the globe, there are only a handful of countries that have some sort of regulations on lobbying, and even these laws — with a few notable exceptions — are so weak and limited in their effect that it`s as though they did not exist. As always, the lack of political will is an important factor in the weak or non-existent laws that regulate lobbying disclosure in most countries, but not the only one to blame.

lobby3

By its nature, lobbying is indeed very difficult to define: We know it includes efforts by those who are paid to influence decision makers in the legislative and executive branch, but is it also grassroot activism and journalism? We think it is. At least in some cases. So then should the law require journalists and activists to register in a lobbyist database? Probably not.

Adequate definitions certainly do not substitute for a healthy transparency ecosystem that is essential for reform; isolated proposals almost never get the necessary political buy-in. Even when countries do manage to create lobbying laws, many of these attempts are doomed to fail because of inappropriate definitions of who constitutes a lobbyist, what is considered lobbying activity, and who might be a target of lobbying.

Some of the definitions fail to cover a significant part of professional lobbyists who make regular contact with politicians, while others miss an entire branch, such as the executive. At another extreme, many of the proposed or existing lobbying regulations fail because of concerns that they are too broad and thus unintentionally limit the freedom of expression or “discourage all constituents from engaging” with their representatives.

The lobbying guidelines

The Sunlight Foundation has created guidelines to start a conversation and encourage the community to reach a consensus on basic principles around lobbying transparency. Experience shows that meaningful change in the world of influence is almost always driven by scandals – such as the Abramoff case in the U.S. And if there’s one thing we never run out of in politics, it’s scandals. Our somewhat pragmatic goal is thus to empower local activists in their fight for reform, so that whenever a new scandal is unfolding, they will backed up by the necessary ammunition — aka strong arguments and a powerful community.

In doing this work, we’re hoping to create a stronger starting point for reformers throughout the world, to help activists and lawmakers operate in a supportive international context, and to empower use and analysis of lobbying disclosures. On that front, we’ve already seen innovative use of civil society tools such as Influence Explorer and LobbyPlag that enable people to convert lobbying information into meaningful narratives, making it easier for individuals to understand the dynamics of the decision-making process, and thus strengthening public oversight of lobbying.

Based in part on our experiences working to make lobbying more transparent in the US, the guide is organized into four parts: first, a section on definitions of key terms and the basic principles to make a lobbyist registry more robust; second, guidance on the minimum information that should be disclosed; third, a section on how this information should be collected and in what formats it should be published; and finally, some basic recommendations on enforcement and oversight.

We need your input

Again, the guide is intended as a conversation starter. We encourage the transparency community to give their input in this commentable document and help us refine these norms in a collaborative manner. We are especially curious to hear your input on the definitions we offer, and to verify the international examples we’ve collected – we might be missing some important aspects or internal dynamics.

You can leave your comments in the document or write to us at international@sunlighftoundation.com before January 6th 2014.

We look forward to hearing from and working with many more of you in the coming weeks and months. In the meantime, we encourage you to join the lobbying working group.

Open letter asking for greater transparency around Trans-Pacific Partnership negotiations

Jonathan Gray - November 22, 2013 in Policy, Transparency

The Open Knowledge Foundation has joined more than 30 civil society organisations and experts in signing an open letter asking leaders for greater transparency around the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade negotiations.

The controversial negotiations have been covered in The Guardian and The Washington Post over the past few days following the leaking of a draft chapter on intellectual property which suggests that the treaty may look to extend IP protections and to strengthen their enforcement.

The full text of the letter is reproduced below.

Tony Abbott, Prime Minister of Australia
Hassanal Bolkiah, Sultan of Brunei
Stephen Harper, Prime Minister of Canada
Sebastian Pinera, President of Chile
Shinzo Abe, Prime Minister of Japan
Najib Razak, Prime Minister of Malaysia
Enrique Pena Nieto, President of Mexico
John Key, Prime Minister of New Zealand
Ollanta Humala, President of Peru
Tony Tan, President of Singapore
Ma Ying-jeou, President of Taiwan
Barack Obama, President of the United States of America
Truong Tan Sang, President of Vietnam

We, the undersigned civil society groups, urge you to conduct any further trade negotiations in a manner consistent with the democratic principles of openness and accountability.

Countries participating in the Trans-Pacific Partnership negotiations must reconcile the radically secretive process against the transparency values they purport to hold, to strengthen the legitimacy of any international agreements, and to seek appropriate balance between corporate and public interests.

The Trans-Pacific Partnership is a binding international agreement that could have far-reaching implications for commerce and trade around the globe, while modifying or undermining policies affecting consumer safety, access to medicine, intellectual property rights, and internet freedom. Twelve Pacific Rim countries participated in the most recent round of negotiations, which took place this August in Brunei, and several others have expressed interest in joining.

This agreement has the power to override national and local legislation on any number of issues because signatories to the Trans-Pacific Partnership will be required to bring existing and future national policies into compliance with the international norms established in the agreement. Despite the substantive importance of this agreement and growing international support for “open government” principles, it has been negotiated in secret, with only cursory input from the public; only government officials and a small group of industry representatives have been given access to the drafts of this agreement.

Many of the very same countries that have participated in the secret Trans-Pacific Partnership negotiations, including Chile, New Zealand, the United States, Australia, Peru, Mexico, and Canada, attended this month’s Open Government Partnership meeting to tout their commitments to transparency. But, the Trans-Pacific Partnership negotiating process has embodied the opposite values — secrecy and elite access that undermines the democratic principles that these countries purport to represent.

The secrecy surrounding the Trans-Pacific Partnership negotiations has led to a widespread and decisively negative public reaction, including growing opposition in the U.S. Congress and among Members of Parliament in New Zealand, frustration in Japan and Australia, and skepticism all around the world. As shown by reaction to recent disclosures by Wikileaks which, for the first time, allowed advocates and experts to see and analyze a portion of the agreement, there is a clear need, and desire, for the public to have access to the negotiation process. Allowing industry representatives, in particular, to have access to the drafts and negotiation process all but guarantees that corporate interests will be represented at the expense of the public interest in areas as diverse as freedom of expression, access to medicine, consumer product safety, and many more.

In order to ensure that democratic principles are preserved, policy makers, civil society, and members of the public must be given the opportunity to have a level of participation and engagement in this process that is at least equal to that of industry representatives. Attempting to conduct international negotiations in secret has proven untenable in the past, with public opposition swelling when details of the plans are apparently leaked by those in positions of power who share these concerns. We believe that it is time for governments around the world live up to their own rhetoric and extend their commitments to openness and public participation to the Trans-Pacific Partnership and any future negotiations.

Signed,

Africa Freedom of Information Centre
ARTICLE 19, Global Campaign for Free Expression
Center for Effective Government
Center for Independent Journalism, Romania
Centre for Law and Democracy
Christopher Allan Webber
Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington — CREW
Coalition for Democracy and Civil Society
Common Cause Zambia
Concerned Citizen
CPI Foundation, Sarajevo
David Eaves
Diritto Di Sapere
Electronic Frontier Foundation
Fundación Ciudadano Inteligente
Global Financial Integrity
Government Accountability Project
Knowledge Economy International
IndyMedia
International NGO Forum on Indonesian Development — INFID
Iraqi Journalists Rights Defense Association
Melbourne Social Forum
New Rules for Global Finance
OpenTheGovernment.org
Oxfam America
Pro Media
Project on Government Oversight — POGO
Public Knowledge
Sean Flynn, American University Washington College of Law
Sunlight Foundation
The Open Knowledge Foundation
Windmill

New petition to fix the EU lobby register

Jonathan Gray - November 8, 2013 in Access to Information, Open Data, Policy

The Alliance for Lobbying Transparency and Ethics Regulation (ALTER-EU), a coalition of over 200 civil society groups concerned about the effects of corporate lobbying on the EU (including the Open Knowledge Foundation), have recently launched a petition to fix the EU’s official register of lobbyists.

The current register is voluntary, incomplete and unreliable – giving only a small glimpse of the picture about the activities of big lobbyists in Brussels. ALTER-EU produced a detailed report earlier this year looking at some of the things that are wrong with the current register, and how to fix them.

This is an excellent opportunity for the EU to demonstrate their commitment to the principle that official information can be used to strengthen the democracy and public accountability of European institutions (which I wrote about on the EU digital agenda blog a couple of weeks ago).

If you want to see the EU increasing lobbying transparency and fixing the register, we strongly encourage you to sign and share the petition!

If you’re interested in pushing for greater lobbying transparency in your country, you can also join our recently launched global working group on lobbying transparency, that we’re co-hosting with the Sunlight Foundation.

New partnership to map the public domain in France

Jonathan Gray - November 8, 2013 in Featured, Policy, Public Domain

Last night Aurélie Filippetti, the French Minister for Culture and Communication, announced a new partnership between the French ministry of Culture and Communication and the Open Knowledge Foundation France to take steps towards mapping the public domain in France.

The ‘public domain calculator’ demonstrator project will develop a tool to help establish legal status of cultural works – in particular helping users to determine whether or not they have passed out of copyright and into the public domain. You can watch a video about the partnership here (in French, with English translation coming soon).

In her speech, Minister Filippetti said:

We often say that a work has “fallen” into the public domain, as though it falls into a state of disuse, abandonment or oblivion. In fact, precisely the opposite is true. When a work enters the public domain, it experiences a rebirth. And I want to show that my department recognises this. Therefore, to support our thinking in this area, we have formed a partnership with Open Knowledge Foundation France to develop a prototype of a French public domain calculator using a set of cultural metadata (in this case a selection of metadata about works from the Great War) provided by the National Library of France.

French Minister for Culture and Communication Aurélie Filippetti announcing the partnership between the ministry and Open Knowledge Foundation France.

The announcement was made at a reception at the end of an event on ‘the transmission of culture in the digital age’, which included talks about the value and potential of the digital public domain and open data from cultural institutions.

I gave a keynote talk about the Open Knowledge Foundation’s work on mapping the cultural commons with the public domain calculators, as well as other related initiatives such as OpenGLAM and The Public Domain Review.

Results were presented from a recent ‘mashup workshop’ to encourage creative reuse of public domain works, run by the ministry in partnership with Open Knowledge Foundation France, Wikimedia France and others.

There were also talks from the Rijksmuseum and the British Library about what they are doing to publish and encourage the reuse of open data and open digital copies of public domain works.

Overall the day made clear that the Digital Policy Department at the French ministry of Culture and Communication, under the leadership of Camille Domange, have taken the decision to put the digital commons high up on their agenda.

It is very encouraging to see such strong government recognition of the value of the public domain as an indispensable public good. We applaud France’s leadership in this area, and hope this will inspire other countries to do more to enable the digital public domain to flourish and to take steps to support its reuse for the benefit of citizens – whether for education, creativity, or enjoyment.

If you’re interested in helping to establish a vibrant and open digital public domain in your country, please come and introduce yourself on our Public Domain Working Group.

Open government should be about accountability and social justice, not just the digital economy

Jonathan Gray - November 5, 2013 in Featured, Open Government Data, Policy

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An edited version of this article was featured in The Guardian on 4th November 2013.

“In all parts of the world, we see the promise of innovation to make government more open and accountable. And now, we must build on that progress.” Thus spoke President Obama at the UN General Assembly in September 2010.

This initial call to action gave rise to a new initiative called the Open Government Partnership (OGP). Last week senior government officials and campaigners from around 60 countries gathered in London for the OGP’s second annual summit to announce new voluntary commitments to open government, and for talks about freedom of information, civic participation, whistleblower protection, corporate accountability, and many other things.

Prime Minister David Cameron opened the event with the announcement that the UK would be cracking down on hidden company ownership – in a move which was widely celebrated by transparency, anti-corruption and tax justice campaigners. Elaborate networks of shell companies are often used for a range of illicit and unethical activities – from corruption to arms trafficking, terrorist financing to illegal tax evasion and aggressive tax avoidance. Making the true owners of companies part of the public record will enable journalists, campaigners and others outside government to start to unpick and expose these dark networks and the money that flows through them.

Apart from this announcement, one of the focal points for Cameron’s talk was the importance of open government for economic growth and innovation. Alluding to the work of Amartya Sen, he contended that open governments are conducive to economic prosperity, whereas “closed governments breed poverty”. In the discussion following his speech he talked about the potential of digital data from governments as “an enormous wealth creator”.

Cameron’s speech typified a broader pivot in open government discourse in recent years from political accountability and social justice towards economic growth and digital innovation, from holding power to account to supporting startups. In recent years senior officials from the US and the UK have started alluding to a trinity of “open governments, open societies, and open economies” in high level transparency talks, as well as to the potential of digital technologies and digital information for innovative new businesses and growth. In addition to the kinds of panels you might expect at a transparency summit, there were also sessions on public-private partnerships, entrepreneurs in civic innovation, and smart cities. Web inventor Sir Tim Berners-Lee remarked in his closing talk, “for me always the most exciting piece of it at the end of the day is economic value”.

What is open government really all about? What should it be about? Last year two researchers at Princeton wrote a paper about the increasing ambiguity of the phrase ‘open government’ in its contemporary usage – contending that while it used to carry a “hard political edge”, referring to “politically sensitive disclosures of government information” pushed for by transparency and accountability campaigners, it now increasingly refers to technologies for sharing information and “politically neutral” regimes of disclosure which allow even the most draconian and regressive of governments to self-describe as ‘open’.

In other words, they argued, open government advocates risk conflating technological openness with political openness – of associating the openness and usability of information, software, standards, and the digital architecture of government with the openness of official institutions and processes to the citizens they are supposed to serve. While sometimes it may be more more comfortable for governments to highlight their plans to ‘go digital’ or to enable new businesses by opening up official data, transparency advocates in should not be distracted from its mission to enable citizens to hold power to account and to fight for social and environmental justice.

Perhaps part of the issue is the way in which open government is increasingly considered to be a tool for transforming inputs into the desired outputs, agnostic as to who is using it and for what purpose. To take a crass example: surely open government should not be about making public institutions even more permeable to the influence of big money – whether fossil fuel lobbyists or large companies seeking lucrative contracts. To take another example, the current government under Cameron’s leadership has also generally been very canny in steering the UK’s transparency agenda to support its politics of austerity, encouraging citizens to “join the hunt for government savings” and to “root out waste” – perhaps not a priority for local citizen groups fighting to protect frontline public services.

Surely what matters is not openness per se, but way in which this openness is used to improve the lives of citizens: to reduce inequality, to bring more people out of poverty, to tackle corruption and injustice, to increase access to education and healthcare, to mitigate the effects of catastrophic changes in the earth’s climate, and so on. In other words to ensure that states and public institutions are being used to promote the wellbeing of citizens, rather than the interests of wealthy and powerful elites. Perhaps open government talks might benefit from being less procedural and more substantive in their approach. For example, by foregrounding issues rather than instruments, values rather than processes, and through greater engagement with citizens and campaigners who usually have little to do with open government policy formation about the transparency and accountability challenges they face.

The Open Government Partnership has potential to be a hugely invaluable way for citizens and civil society groups to engage with the civil servants and state officials who represent them. It is an opportunity for them to have frank discussions about their aspirations and concerns in an impartial extra-national context. But for this to happen, the OGP must keep its focus firmly on how states can better serve and be more responsive to the needs of citizens, and should not be sidetracked by commercial opportunity or digital ephemera.

UK takes lead on ending company secrecy at Open Government Partnership Summit

Jonathan Gray - October 31, 2013 in Campaigning, News, Policy

We will be updating this post throughout the morning, as further details are announced. For press contact, call +44 (0)1223 422159 or email press@okfn.org.

This morning UK Prime Minister David Cameron announced the UK’s support for public registers of beneficial ownership, or who really owns companies, at the Open Government Partnership Summit in London.

In his speech he said:

I’m delighted to announce that not only is that register going to go ahead – but that it’s also going to be open to the public.

[...] there are so many wider benefits to making this information available to everyone.

It’s better for businesses here – who will be able to better identify who really owns the companies they’re trading with.

It’s better for developing countries – who will have easy access to all this data, without submitting endless requests for each line of enquiry.

And it’s better for us all to have an open system which everyone has access to – the more eyes that look at this information, the more accurate it will be.

This is a complete world first on transparency and I’m proud Britain is leading the way.

And today I call on the rest of the world to join us in this journey.

[...] together we can close the door on these shadowy, corrupt, illegal practices once and for all.

Currently true company ownership is secret and shell companies are often used to mask the identities of people engaged in a wide variety of illegal activities – from organised crime to corruption, tax evasion to terrorist financing.

The Open Knowledge Foundation is delighted to see the UK taking international leadership on this issue, and we hope the UK’s historic step will encourage other countries to follow suit.

Furthermore we hope that the UK will not only make beneficial ownership information public, but open and machine readable in accordance with the Open Data Charter launched at the G8 Summit in Northern Ireland earlier this year.

Laura James, CEO of the Open Knowledge Foundation commented: “Making true company ownership public was the single biggest ask from civil society organisations engaging with the UK government around its National Action Plan, and one of the biggest sticking points in talks leading up to today’s summit. Hence we’re very pleased to see the UK taking the lead on this issue and cracking down on company secrecy.”

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