Protecting Identity

One of my priority projects over the past few years has to do with protecting the identity of freedom of information (FOI) requesters. Identity obligations – such as including one’s real name and social security number – represent a minor detail is some laws that – we believe – can have a major impact on the use and effectiveness of transparency laws. So big, in fact, that we formally petitioned Brazil’s federal government to address the issue of identity obligations, which are required by Brazil’s law. This petition was submitted under the aegis of the Open Government Partnership together with several civil society organizations, including Article 19, the Investigative Reporters Association of Brazil (ABRAJI), Transparency International, and Transparency Brasil. 

Risks to Requesters

The idea is that requesting information poses two risks for requesters, one existential, the other procedural, as well deterring would-be requesters from using FOI more generally. First, citizens might suffer reprisals for what they ask. Say a citizen knows about corruption and involved officials get wind of a request seeking to expose it. Their reaction may range from intimidation, to aggression or even murder – as evinced by India’s list of right-to-information attacks and murders. Second, requesters may suffer discriminatory responses based upon who they are. The primary mechanism for this discrimination is what we call ‘identity-questing’, the use of some form of search by public servants to locate and profile requesters.

Googling the Requester

Over time it became amply clear to me that the practice of identity-questing is widespread. A first source of evidence for this practice is the literature on FOI, including Alasdair Roberts’ excellent work on FOI in Canada. A second source are public servants whom I have taught in Brazil, and who freely admit to “Googling the requester” in order to gain insights into requesters, their motivations or potential needs. The danger of Googling the requester is that public servants may act on conscious or unconscious biases resulting from their searches, responding in a preferential manner. According to uncertainty reduction theory, people tend to be more sympathetic to people they can identify and identify with.

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