Online freedom. (online access to public information) (column)
by Steven Anzovin
Thomas Jefferson once said that the people are made safe by the information that they possess and that they're the sole guardians of religious and political freedom. Although it's two centuries old, his observation sums up the philosophy of perhaps the first political party to offer a computing-based vision of government.
The tiny Independent High Tech Party runs out of headquarters in Hopkinton, Massachusetts. Its prime mover is 38-old Leonard J. Umina, a good-natured Digital Equipment executive and former Republican who has never held public office. Umina and four associate recently offered themselves as candidates for Massachusetts's highest executive positions in last November's elections, with Umina himself running for governor.
Umina, an authentic political outsider, may well have the distinction of being one of the few computer-literate people ever to have run for governor of any state. But that's not what's interesting about him - or his party. He's grappling with a problem that soon may be a major issue.
Umina believes that Americans today are in danger of losing their freedom because they no longer have access to the information that guarantees it. In a democracy, the people themselves possess and control the information they need. This was something Jefferson understood. The Declaration of Independence was printed by small, independent presses, not the royal printers of King George.
However, even a democratic government can deny public information to ordinary citizens - or even to politicians within the system itself. In Massachusetts, says Umina, the state legislature had to invoke the Freedom of Information Act to find out from the governor's office what was in the state's checking account and how many employees were on the state payroll. This was plainly information that people had a right to know and that was available in the state's computerized accounting system, but it never had been made public.
A free press should guarantee the free flow of information that democracy requires. Today's computer systems, however, can interfere with press access to vital information.
Nonetheless, Umina believes that electronic technology is also the key to restoring the free spread of information, possible through a new program he and his party have proposed, called Public Access Computerization. This involves putting all government information - such as proceedings of legislative meetings, accurate income and expenditure figures for government programs, the full text of government contracts, and so on - on a mainframe that's freely accessible via modem or network from any computer. The mainframe would be run by an independent agency not controlled by any branch of government or political party. "With government's every action so visible, waste, corruption, theft, and dishonesty will be eliminated," he claims.
Furthermore, Umina would ensure the availability of computers in public areas, mainly libraries, so that anyone could access the government database. "I want every person to be able to examine any part of our state government's operation from the library, home, or school. I want high school and college classes to be able to study our government and its operation and to recommend alternatives and changes to programs, expenditures, and activities."
Public Access Computerization would help local governments as well. Massachusetts is currently suffering through a major recession, but the state government sat on the budgetary bad news as long as possible before making it public. This forced local officials to make last-minute guesses at future levels o state aid. Under Umina's system, state fiscal information would be visible at all times, making budgetary guesswork unnecessary and cutting waste.
In his public statements, Umina hasn't dealt with all the potential problems of Public Access Computerization. How much would it cost? Could it be implemented on a state level only, or would it have to be a national program to include all the federal information that states need to plan their own programs and budgets? How could it be protected from hackers and dirty tricksters? Could you convince the public to use it? Still, Public Access Computerization was the only truly new idea aired during the Massachusetts campaign season. It deserved serious examination.
It didn't get it, of course. Umina and his High Tech Party met the same fate suffered by most other fringe parties that nibble at the edges of U.S. politics. With no party organization, no political machine, no television advertising, and no money, Umina's bid for governor was bound to fail - and did, even in an election in which many voters expressed an intense dislike for both major candidates. The local press had a field day with the group, calling them "Boy Scouts," "Don Quixotes," and "hopelessly native." It may be that offbeat candidates without major party backing can no longer win American elections or that freedom of information is too abstract an issue to have much voter appeal.
Judged by the honest and forward-looking nature of the party platform, Umina and his Independent High Tech Party are onto something. Is anybody listening?