Freedom of Information campaigner Heather Brooke’s powerful Ted talk traces her battle to uncover the British Parliamentary financial expenses and the resulting political scandal in 2009. She urges us to ask our leaders questions through platforms like Freedom of Information requests — and to finally get some answers.
On her fight for Parliament expenses information:
So I fought for about five years doing this, and it was one of many hundreds of requests that I made, not — I didn’t — Hey, look, I didn’t set out, honestly, to revolutionize the British Parliament. That was not my intention. I was just making these requests as part of research for my first book. But it ended up in this very long, protracted legal battle and there I was after five years fighting against Parliament in front of three of Britain’s most eminent High Court judges waiting for their ruling about whether or not Parliament had to release this data. And I’ve got to tell you, I wasn’t that hopeful, because I’d seen the establishment. I thought, it always sticks together. I am out of luck.
Well, guess what? I won. Hooray. (Applause)
On the democratization of information:
So we are moving to this democratization of information, and I’ve been in this field for quite a while. Slightly embarrassing admission: Even when I was a kid, I used to have these little spy books, and I would, like, see what everybody was doing in my neighborhood and log it down. I think that was a pretty good indication about my future career as an investigative journalist, and what I’ve seen from being in this access to information field for so long is that it used to be quite a niche interest, and it’s gone mainstream. Everybody, increasingly, around the world, wants to know about what people in power are doing. They want a say in decisions that are made in their name and with their money.
On the demand for data:
So that’s why we’re seeing increasingly this demand for access to information. That’s why we’re starting to see more disclosure laws come out, so for example, on the environment, there’s the Aarhus Convention, which is a European directive that gives people a very strong right to know, so if your water company is dumping water into your river, sewage water into your river, you have a right to know about it. In the finance industry, you now have more of a right to know about what’s going on, so we have different anti-bribery laws, money regulations, increased corporate disclosure, so you can now track assets across borders. And it’s getting harder to hide assets, tax avoidance, pay inequality.
On advances in freedom of information:
So this is a guy called Seb Bacon. He’s a computer programmer, and he built a site called Alaveteli, and what it is, it’s a Freedom of Information platform. It’s open-source, with documentation, and it allows you to make a Freedom of Information request, to ask your public body a question, so it takes all the hassle out of it, and I can tell you that there is a lot of hassle making these requests, so it takes all of that hassle out, and you just type in your question, for example, how many police officers have a criminal record? It zooms it off to the appropriate person, it tells you when the time limit is coming to an end, it keeps track of all the correspondence, it posts it up there, and it becomes an archive of public knowledge. So that’s open-source and it can be used in any country where there is some kind of Freedom of Information law.
On advances in investigative reporting and collaboration:
In my own field of investigative journalism, we’re also having to start thinking globally, so this is a site called Investigative Dashboard. And if you’re trying to track a dictator’s assets, for example, Hosni Mubarak, you know, he’s just funneling out cash from his country when he knows he’s in trouble, and what you want to do to investigate that is, you need to have access to all of the world’s, as many as you can, companies’ house registrations databases. So this is a website that tries to agglomerate all of those databases into one place so you can start searching for, you know, his relatives, his friends, the head of his security services. You can try and find out how he’s moving out assets from that country.
On radical openness:
So I’ve mentioned WikiLeaks, because surely what could be more open than publishing all the material? Because that is what Julian Assange did. He wasn’t content with the way the newspapers published it to be safe and legal. He threw it all out there. That did end up with vulnerable people in Afghanistan being exposed. It also meant that the Belarussian dictator was given a handy list of all the pro-democracy campaigners in that country who had spoken to the U.S. government. Is that radical openness? I say it’s not, because for me, what it means, it doesn’t mean abdicating power, responsibility, accountability, it’s actually being a partner with power. It’s about sharing responsibility, sharing accountability.
One future solutions:
So what is the solution? It is, I believe, to embody within the rule of law rights to information. At the moment our rights are incredibly weak. In a lot of countries, we have Official Secrets Acts, including in Britain here. We have an Official Secrets Act with no public interest test. So that means it’s a crime, people are punished, quite severely in a lot of cases, for publishing or giving away official information. Now wouldn’t it be amazing, and really, this is what I want all of you to think about, if we had an Official Disclosure Act where officials were punished if they were found to have suppressed or hidden information that was in the public interest?