Last month Techdirt wrote about yet more secret meetings between the copyright and internet industries, this time in Australia, where the federal government there was “encouraging” them to come up with ways of tackling online copyright infringement.
The public, as usual, was not invited to offer their views on plans that would obviously affect them more than anyone. And so people filed a freedom of information (FOI) request to find out belatedly what was going on. Butthe answers they received were unsatisfactory, to say the least:
the Attorney-General’s Department responded to that Freedom of Information request, providing a series of five documents. However, using a variety of justifications, the department has redacted almost all of the information previously contained in the documents — including 14 pages of notes taken by a departmental staffer at the event and other four pages of notes taken by a senior staffer from Communications Minister Stephen Conroy’s department.
Some of the excuses for not providing the requested information are pretty far-fetched:
the Attorney-General’s Department stated in its response to Delimiter’s FoI request that it “does not hold” a list of the attendees who actually attended the meeting.
So the Australian government organized a secret meeting, but doesn’t know who attended? If that’s true, it suggests a stunning level of incompetence that ought to require heads to roll; and if it’s not true, then heads should still roll, for being economical with the truth.
But perhaps the most outrageous aspect of the response to the FOI request is the underlying justification for providing a content-free non-reply:
“Disclosure of the documents while the negotiations are still in process, would, in my view, prejudice, hamper and impede those negotiations to an unacceptable degree,” wrote [Attorney-General’s Department senior legal officer] Purcell. That would, in my view, be contrary to the interests of good government — which would, in turn, be contrary to the public interest.”
What this really means is: “All hell will break loose when the public finds out what is being discussed behind closed doors. So what we’re going to do is to come up with an agreement in secret, and then present it as a fait accompli, without offering citizens any options to change anything substantive. By contrast, to release the documents, and allow the public to have a say in how they should be allowed to use a critical 21st-century technology, would be contrary to the interests of this very good government, which by definition is identical with the public interest.”
It’s really extraordinary that, in 2012, governments can still trot out this nonsense that what is good for the government is by definition good for the public interest. How about letting the public have a say on the matter, by inviting them to join the debate using the means devised by the open government movements around the world during the last few years?
Instead, once the back-room deal finally emerges into the light of day, and is predictably met by a barrage of anger, the Australian government will profess itself stunned by the ingratitude of the public that is rejecting all that hard work done by its faithful public servants. And then perhaps, following in the footsteps of their German colleagues, Australian politicians will use that anger over lack of transparency as an excuse to justify further lack of transparency.
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