Is information a human right?

Reading James Gleick’s new book, The Information, this month has raised a number of questions in my mind.  One of these is this – can information be said to be a human right?

Many people, including web creator Tim Berners-Lee and the government of Finland, have argued that access to the Internet should be an internationally protected right.

But is this like arguing that access to water pipes should be a right – commendable, but focused on the wrong issue? What matters is the water that comes out of the pipes. Is the same true of the Internet and information?

Well, in this case maybe Berners-Lee and the Finns have the right idea. It may not be exactly the point, but legislating for access to the Internet seems more practical than rules protecting access to information.

For one thing, what information do people need? There is a clear difference between the information people use to work and live by, and the information with which they entertain themselves. The argument for protecting Internet access focuses on the means, and lets people decide what is important.

Nevertheless, the thought experiment raises some issues that are by no means theoretical. UK chancellor George Osborne announced in May 2011 that the government’s ambition is to become the “world leader” in open data, and that it will release “some of the most valuable datasets still locked away in government servers” during the coming year.

What information does the government hold that could improve people’s lives? And whose interests should inform the choice of which information to release? I don’t know the answers to these questions, but suggest that we should figure them out before the machinery of open data is set in stone.

Meanwhile, there is another side to this coin. In certain circumstances, it is the ability to limit information that should be the human right, as in the cases of privacy and data protection.

No personally identifying information is published on open data websites such as data.gov.uk, so these two issues have not come into conflict. But Osborne is now talking about opening up healthcare data to scientific analysis – will it be so easy to protect anonymity when handling this highly sensitive kind of information?

The information revolution has been going for decades, if not centuries, but it continues to disrupt some of the longest-established institutions of society. I wonder whether we have a mature enough understanding of how information relates to human rights to make sure that they are protected through that disruption.

Pete Swabey

Pete Swabey

Pete was Editor of Information Age and head of technology research for Vitesse Media (now Bonhill Group plc) from 2005 to 2013, before moving on to be Senior Editor and then Editorial Director at The...