As government officials at all levels move quickly to respond to COVID-19 and protect the public’s health, it is vital that they also safeguard the public’s ability to participate in and access information about those decisions, EFF and a coalition of more than 100 organizations wrote in a letter on Friday.
Transparency and public access during this crisis is a necessary and important way to give those affected clarity into government decision-making. It’s neither normal nor healthy for democracy to hide or classify public health-related decisions or deliberations. At a time when whistleblowers and others have contributed to the public awareness of how agencies and government actors, in the U.S. and abroad, have responded to this crisis, it’s crucial that we see exactly how decisions with potentially life-altering ramifications are made. From the letter:
“At all times, but most especially during times of national crisis, trust and credibility are the government’s most precious assets. As people are asked to make increasing sacrifices in their daily lives for the greater good of public health, the legitimacy of government decision-making requires a renewed commitment to transparency.”
While some government functions move away from normal channels due to safety measures such as quarantines—for example, using private email accounts instead of government email accounts—every effort must be made to ensure those channels allow for messages to be publicly accessible. Agencies may struggle to respond quickly to public records requests and other requests for information at this time, which is why the default must be a commitment to transparency from the beginning, rather than obfuscation. For example, agencies should not follow the lead of the FBI, which has stopped accepting FOIA requests via email.
The letter also encourages governments to postpone important decisions that can be made after the current crisis, as officials should not exploit the inability for the public to participate in person in the short term:
“Just as citizens are being asked to defer nonessential travel and errands, so should government agencies defer noncritical policy-making decisions until full and meaningful public involvement can be guaranteed. Where postponement is not realistic, every available measure should be taken to (1) notify the public of meetings of government bodies and how to participate in those meetings remotely, (2) use widely available technologies to maximize real-time public engagement, and (3) preserve a viewable record of proceedings that is promptly made accessible online.”
Transparency is among the principles EFF has laid out for government to take into consideration and commit to during this crisis. Knowing “what the government is up to” is often the first step in ensuring that the government respects the civil liberties of its citizens, and during a crisis, this knowledge takes on extraordinary importance. Though this may take additional effort due to the severity of the pandemic, it is essential that government actions be clearly and quickly explained to the public. Moreover, transparency is particularly important so the public can scrutinize fast-moving efforts to have private companies work with the government to respond to COVID-19, such as the reported Google effort to help broaden access to screening for the virus.
EFF is a fierce defender of government transparency, which is especially important given reports of secretive talks between government agencies and corporations hoping to deploy technologies such as cell-phone location tracking, advanced video analytics, and biometric surveillance.
The rallying cry of these difficult times is that we’re all in this together. We agree, and that includes keeping everyone in the loop when it comes to technology that could cause long-lasting damage to our rights after the crisis has passed.