This week, the United Nations’ Open Working Group on Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) will hold its final session to draft the new international development goals for the next fifteen years, and in a discouraging turn, access to information might be excluded.
Access to information is a core element for improvements in various types of development. Access to information, especially online, can facilitate improvement in an economy’s knowledge base, as well as more transparent and accountable governance. In a globalized and competitive world economy, growth is dependent upon the continuing free flow of transparent, inexpensive, and trustworthy information. Further, access to information is a basic right that enables the expression of other important human rights. Thus, a move to shy away from access to information as a development goal by a UN based working group is disappointing, to say the least.
Public Knowledge strongly advocates for the explicit inclusion of access to information and freedom of expression in the new UN Sustainable Development Goals, in order to make digital rights and access to information online an international priority.
Background: The Millennium Development Goals and Access to Information
Originally developed in 2000, the UN Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) are a set of eight goals the UN developed with the approval of all member states to improve the human condition by 2015. The goals developed were very broad and included eradicating extreme poverty, promoting gender equality, achieving universal primary education, and reducing child mortality. Even though these goals were broad, for over a decade international organizations, governments, civil society, and private companies have invested billions of dollars into trying to achieve these goals.
As the 2015 deadline approached and results on some goals have fared better than others, the UN General Assembly called for a way to advance the MDGs past 2015. Since the Rio+20 Conference on Sustainable Development that was held in 2012, the UN has been in the process of developing a post-2015 Development Agenda that includes a new set of sustainable development goals (SDGs) with a 2030 deadline. Understandably, with varying degrees of success on the broader goals developed in 2000, this time around there’s a push (from the UN, international organizations, and especially governments) for the new set of goals to be more specific in terms of goals and indicators.
In September 2013, a report of recommendations for SDGs was published, and within the twelve goals suggested, access to information was explicitly mentioned twice under the tenth goal of ensuring good governance and effective institutions, whereby governments must “ensure people enjoy freedom of speech, association, peaceful protest and access to independent media and information,” and “guarantee the public’s right to information and access to government data”. This was an early sign of hope for digital rights activists and freedom of expression advocates who were hoping for increased global attention towards the crucial issue of access to information. Early Open Working Group’s drafts in 2013 and early 2014 included governments’ responsibility to ensure “public access to information”.
Now let’s take it back to end of June 2014. All of a sudden in the most recent zero draft published after the twelfth Open Working Group session, “free and easy access to information” is mentioned just once with no mention of governments’ responsibility to ensure that the this right is protected. The Global Forum for Media Development estimates that if the current vague sub-goal stands, no indicators will be included in the new goals to ensure that governments actually promote and ensure access to information and freedom of expression. Even worse, if some Open Working Group members that are fighting against the “access to information” clause (including Russia, China, Cuba, and Venezuela) have their way, the protection of the right to access information could be excluded completely.
Why does this matter?
Simply put, the Internet and access to information is a driver of development.
Since the UN Millenium Development Goals were first developed fourteen years ago, the Internet has come to play an enormously important role in fostering improvement in all of the original eight goals and in all sectors of development. Access to information online has allowed for increased access to knowledge through online library databases and archives, online education and distance learning, and open source educational programs. In developing countries, access to the Internet (and thus, access to information) is seen as a key to increased political involvement and education.
One of the criticisms of the UN Millenium Development Goals was its lack of focus on human rights. Not only is access to information, itself, a human right, but it also is a precursor to other human rights including freedom of expression, peaceful assembly, religion, press, opinion, and right to participate in government. A set of UN sustainable development goals that includes access to information has the power to make access to Internet and digital rights a priority for the international community, as well as developing countries most impacted by poverty and the digital gap.
Besides being a conduit for economic, political, and educational development, access to information in the digital age is fundamental for fostering knowledge, innovation, and creativity worldwide. The Internet has allowed for increased global access to creative content such as blogs, film, and music. The availability of creative content online allows for global citizens to exercise their right to freedom of expression by both developing and experiencing content that can be spread across the globe. Access to information has also encouraged technological and creative innovation in technology, education, medicines and health, and environmental conservation (all of which relate to the original eight goals).
After its final session, the Open Working Group will report to the UN General Assembly their recommendations for the SDGs around September 2014. The human rights organizations Article 19 and Reporters Without Borders have already expressed their support for access to information being an important part of the post-2015 development goals, as well as their concerns if it is not included. Similarly, PK urges the US government and other governments to explicitly ensure the inclusion and enforcement of the rights of access to information and freedom of expression in the new UN sustainable development goals. Further, the goals on access to information should have specific, measurable targets to be achieved by 2030.