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How Freedom of Information requests led to a Parliamentary scandal: Read an excerpt from Heather Brooke’s book

Posted by: Kate Torgovnick May

The British Parliament elected in 2005 has an unfortunate nickname  — the “Rotten Parliament.”

Journalist Heather Brooke had a lot to do with the uncovering of their rottenness. In 2004, just a few years after the passage of the UK’s Freedom of Information Act, Brooke began requesting documentation on members of Parliament’s expenses, from their travel to their incidentals to their second homes.

“I didn’t set out to revolutionize the British Parliament. That was not my intention. I was just making these requests as research for my first book,” says Brooke in this moving talk from TEDGlobal. (The book is called Your Right to Know: A Citizen’s Guide to the Freedom of Information Act.) “[But] the amount of resistance I got, you would have thought … I was asking for the code to a nuclear bunker.”

It took a multi-year legal battle for Brooke to get the information she requested. And not all of it came through the usual channels. A whistleblower inside Parliament copied much of expense report data onto a disk, and walked out of the building with it, leaking it to The Daily Telegraph. Slews of stories followed, detailing expense abuses from a £12,000 gardening bill to £18,000 bookshelves to payments on a third home. A full-blown scandal erupted.

In the end, six ministers would resign — the Speaker of the House of Commons stepping down for the first time in 300 years. A new government was elected, with 120 members of Parliament opting not to seek re-election. A few of the former members of Parliament even received jail time.

“Access to information used to be quite a niche interest, but it’s gone mainstream,” says Brooke in her talk. “Everyone around the world wants to know what people in power are doing. They want a say in decisions made in their name and with their money.”

In her talk, Brooke highlights a few new tools, which she hopes will make tracking information on those in power much easier. Alaveteli.org aims to take the hassle out of Freedom of Information requests while creating a public database of the information received. Brooke is also a fan of InvestigativeDashboard.org, which streamlines the process of tracking of assets across borders.

To hear more about Brooke’s battle with Parliament, listen to her talk. And after the jump, read an excerpt from her new book, The Revolution Will Be Digitised, which not only tells her story but looks at others — from pro-democracy campaigners to hackers — fighting what she calls “the Information War.”

Brooke’s new book begins:

“We are at an extraordinary moment in human history: never before has the possibility of true democracy been so close to realisation. As the cost of publishing and duplication has dropped to near zero, a truly free press, and a truly informed public, becomes a reality. A new Information Enlightenment is dawning where knowledge flows freely, beyond national boundaries. Technology is breaking down traditional social barriers of status, class, power, wealth and geography, replacing them with an ethos of collaboration and transparency. In this new Enlightenment it isn’t just scientific truths that are the goal, but discovering truths about the way we live, about politics and power.

During the first Enlightenment the free flow of information was considered essential to understanding the natural world; without full disclosure we had no hope of overcoming our inherent human biases that occluded our vision of the truth. In England, scientists were careful to cordon off this questing curiosity to science but its revolutionary impact in politics led to the American and French revolutions. Thomas Jefferson said that America was an experiment that would ‘demonstrate to the world the falsehood that freedom of [speech and] the press are incompatible with orderly government’. America produced ‘the first legislature that had the courage to declare that its citizens may be trusted with the formation of their own opinions’.

This aspiration is not solely American. Citizens around the world have long declared a desire to be trusted with the formation of their own opinions, and that can only come when they have access to the facts. This is the essence of the information war. Do we trust citizens to communicate freely and come to their own conclusions, or do we believe those in authority have a right to restrict and manipulate what we know? Do we hold to Enlightenment ideals of reason and the pursuit of truth no matter where that takes us, or put our faith in authority to make certain an uncertain world?

The Internet is powerful because it allows people to organise around issues at unprecedented speed, broadcast their thoughts and challenge those in charge. A wave of such groups banded together in early 2011 to demand the removal of authoritarian leaders in the Middle East as one country after another rose up with varying degrees of success. But the Internet doesn’t cause revolution. It is a communications network. What people choose to do with technology – that is where we can make moral judgements. Some people will use it for ill, others for good. Security forces tend to focus on the ills, while the majority use it for good. In the name of protecting us from ‘bad things on the Internet’ there are increasing moves to suppress communications networks in both repressive and democratic countries. Demands to shut down, censor, filter or in other ways oversee and control the way people communicate are on the rise.”

To read the rest of this excerpt, head to TheRevolutionWillBeDigitised.com.