Next President Has "Open" Opportunity

12/01/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • Leslie Harris President and CEO of the Center for Democracy & Technology

The Internet is at a crossroads. Down one path lies a future where digital technology enhances constitutional freedoms; spurs innovations in expression and entrepreneurship; and fulfills its ultimate promise of connecting and empowering the world. Down the other? A future where the Internet is turned against users; where government spying runs unchecked, and where innovation is stifled by a closed and locked system, controlled by a handful of entrenched players. The next president will play a key role in determining which path we take. This is the fifth in a series of entries over the next couple weeks about the critical technology and civil liberties choices facing the next president of the United States. For a more in-depth look at these issues, see our transition guide for next president.

The turn of the century should have marked the dawn of the Golden Age of government openness.

That didn't happen.

Instead of taking advantage of advances in Internet technology and usage to make the government more accessible to the people, the current administration spent a great deal of time deliberately reducing the amount of non-classified government information available online -- all under the flimsy rubric of improving security. The next administration will have an opportunity -- no... an obligation -- to change that dynamic using the Internet to bring the workings of government to the people it is supposed to serve.

Of all the policy challenges facing the next president, this is one of the very few over which he will have near-outright control. When, in response to the September 2001 terrorist attacks, the Bush administration encouraged agencies throughout the federal government to withhold public information from their Web sites whenever possible, it did so unilaterally, triggering a regressive trend that open government advocates are fighting to this day.

Although Congress will have its own roll to play -- not least in finally giving ordinary citizens the opportunity to download the reports created by the $100 million-a-year Congressional Research Service -- the next president will have an opportunity to drastically change the nature of government openness, literally from his first day in office.

The E-Government Act of 2002 encourages federal agencies to make key information available online, but it is the White House that tells those agencies how to implement that guidance. If the president demands that citizens have better access to social services, government reports, executive decisions and other key pieces of government information, the agencies will respond.

And before anyone tosses out the old canard about restricting access to government information on the grounds of protecting national security, let me be clear, this push for a more open government has never been about classified information. This is about information that ordinary citizens can already obtain -- if they have a lot of time on their hands, and know how to fill out a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request.

The issue of a government-led artificial restriction on access to information has more or less flown under the radar screen but it won't remain that way; it can't. More and more people are turning to the Internet, not just as a convenient way to ferret out information, but in expectation that they will find information critical to sustaining their everyday lives. As our day-to-day lives become increasingly tied to our digital homesteads, we have come to expect that we can point and click our way through government procedures and forms that were mind numbing in days past. But those growing expectations will be met by the government's digital stonewall.

That the U.S. Government would perpetuate such a system of artificial information scarcity in today's Web-savvy society would be laughable if it weren't so dishearteningly misguided. It's time for the government to take advantage of widely available tools to make it easier for citizens to get involved at every level.

Among other things, the next president must:

• Lead an administration dedicated to transparency and accountability;
• Utilize new technology to promote interactive citizen involvement in government decision-making; and
• Implement the Freedom of Information Act in a spirit of responsiveness and openness.

Democracies rely -- theoretically -- on an informed, engaged electorate. During the current election cycle people have proven the power generated by online tools, from fund-raising to organizing to creating innovative tools allowing others to be more productive at fund-raising and at organizing... We have the tools to help create a powerful, informed electorate. It's time the government reverses its closed-door information policies and concentrate on empowering its people.