Feature Article of Tuesday, 2 September 2008

Columnist: Prof Lungu

FOIB & Privacy Interests: A Still Birth Proposal, Ghana-Style!

A few days ago, we received a question from a Ghanaweb reader who is interning with an NGO in Ghana. The individual wanted to know how privacy interests can be balanced with the Freedom of Information (FOI) bill. We thought that some folks on Ghanaweb might be interested in the question and our response.

Without identifying the individual or the agency, here are the essential questions with a few edits:

“…I'm researching the FOI and writing a proposal on how to fix the current draft. I have read a lot of your posts about the situation. I have done comparisons on the UK and Scotland FOIA and the US…I wanted to see how to include the private sector into the Bill or create a connecting Act. I am having problems though since figures for private contributions and it's role is varied. I'm getting a lot of information about the government wanting to promote privatization but have not grasped yet the affect that would have. Just wondering if you could possibly explain it a little better or if you had any opinions on the matter of including the private sector in the FOIB…” (NGO Intern).

Here is Prof Lungu’s response, in part, edited for Ghanaweb:

Dear NGO Intern, Thanks so much for your inquiry. Please visit www.Ghanahero.com for more information about our work on behalf of the FOI bill for Ghana. See in particular http://www.ghanahero.com/the_cause.html. Depending on what draft you are working from, if it says a Right to Information bill, we can tell you that it is a joke of a Freedom of Information (FOI) bill. There is an important distinction, and it is not even nuanced if you are Ghana-centered (either a citizen or a Ghana supporter).

Read all about it on www.GhanaHero.com. The MP3 song you hear, FOIB, is dedicated to the same effort. In addition, you will find links to our Ghanaweb pieces on the subject, by Prof Lungu, under “Our Favorite Weblinks.”

We dare say that Ghanaians do not have a privacy problem the way it goes, if you know about prioritization of the public interest.

But Ghanaians have a corruption problem as far as their government and governance is concerned. Ghanaians have a lack of accountability problem. Ghanaians have a lack of transparency problem. A talk or treatise about privacy and linkage to the FOI law has great potential to make a joke of the FOI bill, if you want to start thus from the get go. It will be wasteful. It is a sure-fire way to end in Mugabe’s Zimbabwe, with their wretched Right to Information law.

Millions and millions of Ghanaians today have practically no privacy interests to protect that are in the hands of government, or even in the hands of private companies. The millions and millions of people without a birth certificate, a hack-proof national identity card, a verifiable and organized personal/residential address!

But those are the millions and millions of people we must plan with/for. All those millions and millions of Ghanaians have an interest in knowing where all their billions and millions of cedis go. They want to know where the billions of cedis from exports of natural resources, from loans in their names, from sales of franchises, from sales of public assets, from gifts and donations given in their, from jobs corralled for friends and siblings, are ending up. Those millions and millions of people from all corners of Ghana have an interest in knowing where all those benefits and opportunities go and why. It is called governance worthy of its name. There is no private interest in all of that if you are Ghana-centered and want to govern with all the people.

Transparency and accountability, that is what!

We are arguing that the Ghana FOI bill should not be morphed into a privacy interest bill for anyone. The Ghana FOI bill is a more important bill to pass right now on its own merits, without wandering into the privacy land of self-interests. That one can come later.

ITEM: The Ghana FOI bill says simply that all data held by the government in government programs and agencies is owned by the people and ought to be available to all the people when they ask for it, unless there is a compelling national security interest to hide that data. If a private corporation receives government funds or is owned by the people, if a single share of that company is owned by the people, they are brought under the FOI bill. And that goes for the Chiefs and the military departments also. But it ought to be an independent commissioner (body) that must decide who is trying to pull a fast one on the people, when someone says “No” to a FOI request. It must not be a minister who knows didly-squat about the agency he/she has been appointed to, or anyone from the Attorney General’s office, someone who has a conflict of interest left and right, admitted or not.

It is that simple, dear Intern!

The best lesson today is the sale of Ghana Telecom (GT) for Vodafone. There is no reason why the divestment contract, with all its stipulations, exemptions, and breaks, is not freely available online for all to read and learn about those details, even long after it has been debated in Ghana’s parliament and approved with very strong objections. FOIB Vodafone, we say!

But you see, if you carry your privacy interest forward in tandem with the FOI bill program, you will meet many in the government and other agencies who will try to say that it is a case of privacy/commercial interest. Then you will have to decide who is for the people, even when you are long gone from your vantage position. Prof Lungu will tell you today, respectfully, that you are planning for those interests if you want a tandem FOIB and Privacy “Act.”

If you go the privacy nexus, it will surely not be in the interest of the millions and millions of people. You will be wasting their time in the current environment.

In fact, we will argue that the more important side item, next to the FOI bill, is the protection of data held by banks and commercial houses. But this is more a data protection problem as far as Ghana goes, given the developmental phase. Protection of data and financial security instruments held by banks and commercials interests is akin to protection of the money supply. Protection from hooligans with off-shore accounts. Protection from drug dealers and money launderers. These things have little privacy implications from a program perspective as far as the millions and millions of people are concerned. Even there, the people ought to be educated about what the government is doing in those areas.

But none of that, none of that ought to be conflated with the people’s sacred right to information held by the government in the name of the people about government expenditures, hiring practices, government income, etc.

Privacy nexus to the Ghana FOI bill in today’s Ghana? A still-birth proposal we say. No capitalization, no maintenance, Ghana-style. Not useful, Prof Lungu will tell you!

We urge you to support the Freedom of Information (FOI) bill now! Keep it simple, stupid for Ghana’s sake!!

Thanks. -Prof Lungu!

NOTES: 1. Our great thanks to the unnamed Intern. Prof Lungu has been receiving a lot of mail about the FOI bill and many requests for a copy of FOIB – Are You Pickable? It shows that many Ghanaians and Ghana supporters care about passage of the bill. They are reading about it and beginning to internalize that requirement with what they expect of Ghana’s evolving democracy. That is a good thing. Please keep on sending your mails and questions. Prof Lungu will personally answer every question/request received with respect to the FOI bill and other Ghana-centered programs.

2. FOIB – Are You Pickable, Mr. Politician, the hit song from Prof Lungu – Get your hands on a copy? Visit www.GhanaHero.com.

3. Read about the FOI bill. Visit www.GhanaHero.com. Get other information. Send us email with your name and address for a copy of “FOIB – Are You Pickable?”

4. Prof Lungu is Ghana-Proud!

Prof Lungu, © 27th August 2008 Tokyo, Japan.