Wednesday, 2 November 2011

Guarding the Guardians - transparency, censorship and online spying

Which governments are most active in restricting information online?

Last week Google published an interesting report on government requests for removal of content on their sites. So which countries come top of this list? Well you may find it suprising that China comes in at number 16 with only 3 requests, well below the US, which comes in at number 3 with 92 requests. Brazil made the most requests (224).

Also revealed by Google are the numbers of requests for information on users. Russia made 42 requests. The US, at the top of this list, made 5,950 requests.

Google should be applauded for publishing this information, which also includes data on how many of these requests Google acceded to (93% of US requests for user data). As Google point out on their site though, to get a real picture, we will need many other organisations (Facebook, Visa, Mastercard and Amazon come to mind) to publish similar information.

And which institutions are leading in letting information free?

I've been attending some sessions at  'Power Reporting',  an African journalism conference at University of Witwatersrand, where I research and teach. A number of sessions have focused on online datamining and how useful it can be for journalists. Journalists from the New York Times, the BBC and News 24 have all shown very interesting work. One things I've noticed though is  that media organisations, even where they mine and present important data to their audiences, too often they do not make the data itself available to their audiences.

Andrew Trench, who heads the investigations unit at News 24 is a leader in using data-mining techniques in South Africa - essentially freeing information that is either secret or so inaccessible as to be hidden from the public. He presented a very interesting study on using government information on the awarding of mining licenses to create stories and maps that tracked the process which has been a source of significant political and economic controversy. You can read his blog on how he did it. But the database that he created by scraping official websites is, as yet,  unpublished. By contrast, Google's transparency report also offers users the ability to download the data so they can undertake their own analyses.

If journalists are going to maximise their contribution to 'guarding the guardians' in our societies we need to see them liberating more information. Stewart Brand, founder of the Whole Earth Catalog,  is credited as the source of the meme that 'information wants to be free', an idea that media owners, unsurprisingly, respond negatively to on most occassions. But whether information is made free in the financial sense or not, what all journalists and academics for that matter should be committed to is 'free' as in 'freedom'  and as in 'freedom of information' - the rights to which  investigative journalists rely on in getting access to the information in the first place.

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