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Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Freedom of Information Part One

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There are a lot of people worked up over the "Right to Privacy" as a way to protect the legality of abortion. There are also a lot of concerns over wiretapping, medical records, government data mining, consumer statisitics, and so forth. People want their privacy. Even those who don't support abortion, or who don't think a "Right to Privacy" is in the constitution, want such a right and seem to believe that it is numbered among those inviolable rights that were God's gift to man.

For example, they say the government has no right to sit across the street and look at your house with infrared sensors to see if you're growing marijuana with heat lamps in your attic.

I totally disagree with this "Right to Privacy." I believe in the "Freedom of Information," hereafter FOI. This may take a few posts to fully explain. I must cover:

1) What exactly FOI entails - probably the shortest section

2) The theoretical basis in natural rights

3) The practical implementation and consequences of this policy

4) The theoretical basis in information theory

I may not get to number four, partly because I am a layman in that area and partly because nobody really cares. Also, I doubt I can explain it in a way that makes sense, much less to an audience that doesn't give a a damn.

Freedom of Information: What is this guy talking about?

Good question. There is a saying in the computer world: "Data wants to be free." This is often appropriated by software pirates, and it may actually be applicable to them, but not directly. What it means is that information has a tendency to leak out, and it can't be taken back once it does. From a practical standpoint, it is hard to control the flow of information.

Knowledge is power. Anyone controlling information does so for their own benefit. This sort of thing has led to Fascist abuses, Stalinist Communism, and all sorts of malfeasance in capitalist economies. It is undesireable to control the flow of information.

From an economic or information architecture standpoint, information increases the efficiency of decision making. This is true for all decisions, not just "economic" ones. Mr. Smith, forgive my butchery. The more information that people have, the better their decision will be. This idea is reflected in John Stuart Mill's work on free speech, which I have cited many times. We benefit when information is distributed widely.

My proposal is the Freedom of Information. It states that the individual has the right to know whatever he wants as long as he doesn't violate any of the other rights in the process of obtaining the information.

The italicised portion is the standard caveat for all the negative rights: Life, Liberty, Property*, and Information. The first part is the essence of the Right. It may seem irrelevant at first, but it has huge implications in several current political issues: data mining, wiretapping, the "war" on drugs, health care, and the plague of identity theft. It is also part of the transparency that is necessary to maintain a free society, transparency which must increase as freedom increases.

*Property is arguable. It may not fit totally in the positive/negative rights dichotomy, but it is predicated partly on Liberty anyway.

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