September 28 is International Right to Know Day, and organisations around the world use the occasion to promote discussion and engagement on secrecy and open government. The right to information is a key pillar of democratic government, but around the world many countries fail to live up to this standard, either through excessive secrecy, decrepit and underfunded access to information systems, or the persecution of whistleblowers.

FOIAnet is the leading international network for civil society organisations that are active on this issue. Throughout the day, advocates from different organisations will be coming online to engage. We are eager to answer any questions you have about your right to know. Some of the advocates who will be online will include:

Michael_Karanicolas – Centre for Law and Democracy (Canada) Toby_Mendel – Centre for Law and Democracy (Canada) ShaileshGandhi (India) jablet - Open Democracy Advice Centre (South Africa) Peter Timmins (FOIGuru) - Open and Shut (Australia) Codruvrabie - (Romania) Cexcell - The Access Initiative, WRI (United States) Adamfoldes - Transparency International (Germany)

Let’s take this conversation forward!

Proof is available here:

Edit: Well ladies and gentlemen, it's been an honour and a pleasure. Thanks for all the great questions - we look forward to doing this again.

Comments: 216 • Responses: 29  • Date: 

hwells664316 karma

This will be downvoted but it probably should be asked. Why do you think people should have a right to know everything?

jablet10 karma

Not everything...all rights can be justifiable limited. You'll find a lot of RTI activists work in the area of privacy (and the preservation of privacy) too. As a flag though, a lot more can be open than you think and security and privacy still remain preserved.

Michael_Karanicolas2 karma

Thanks Gabi! u/jablet is part of FOIAnet, joining us from Open Democracy Advice Centre in South Africa.

DistributedData2 karma

Should I release a tool that would allow ANYONE to send ANY information?

I have invented a system that would allow anyone to easily send any data anonymously securely with full forward secrecy and plausible deniability.

There is no way to block or trace the information as long as people have basic internet access. It might be thought of a mix between TOR and VPN, but requires no installed software other than a web browser.

It would prevent governments from filtering out or snooping on people, but it would also allow criminals to do anything they want.

If so, HOW do I release it without getting in trouble?

Michael_Karanicolas1 karma

Hmm... I feel like this is a hypothetical... There's nothing illegal that I can see about that product though (at least in most Western countries). TOR, and VPNs generally, have tremendous utility for journalists, civil society activists and so on - particularly in countries with poor human rights records.

Edited to add: Absolutely not legal advice in any way, shape or form. Not legal advice.

DistributedData2 karma

This is not hypothetical - I have a working system. It would allow ultimate free speech around the world, but there would be no way to prevent criminals from sending any data either.

In your (non-legal) opinion- do think it would be overall good to release this tool?

Michael_Karanicolas1 karma

This is fundamentally the argument that takes place around Tor, and around encryption generally, technologies which we generally support (you can find our specific position here:

DistributedData1 karma

Thank you!

Is there anyone you can suggest that could review the system before I release it?

Michael_Karanicolas1 karma

Nobody that I can connect you with, I'm afraid. Any developer connected with Tor would probably have the best expertise - as these are exactly the questions they have to grapple with.

TheJestor2 karma

How do you feel about the FOIA requester that just 'fishing' for information?

I work for a small municipality, and am elected (was over FOIA, now over Public Works) in another small municipality close by, surrounded by a larger municipality...

Smaller communities do not have the manpower to dedicate to those who are merely fishing for information, and looking to cause trouble, and who are the loudest screamers of the protocol not working...

Most honest requests seem to understand, yet the 'fishers' seem to be clogging up the works, and making things tougher for everyone...

I agree with the openness of government, but, some people are just looking for human mistakes, and then screaming corruption....

Im not trained in government work, I may misspeak, or screw something up, but never intentionally...

Yet, every mistake is scrutinized until SOMEONE is hung for a mistake...

Michael_Karanicolas1 karma

Very great to hear from you - thanks for contributing. We engage a lot with public bodies to build capacity to implement FOIA laws, so this is a perspective I've heard quite a bit.

I realize how frustrating it can be to have people looking over your shoulder, and how honest mistakes can get misconstrued. At the same time - this is how public oversight, and the democratic process, are supposed to work. Even if the mistakes are unintentional, surely it's better that they're brought to light, so the system can be improved? I've seen a reasonable number of cases where public officials got in trouble from information released through a FOIA, but never a case where an honest mistake was pilloried in the way you describe. Generally, I think people are savvy enough to know the difference.

TheJestor1 karma

Recently, the larger municipality (not mine) had a little 'scandal', and as an insider, I could see that a mistake was made, and then another mistake, to correct the first mistake...

Then there ended up being many, lol...

And, when our local 'fisherman' got a bite, it turned into this great big ordeal, that I found almost circus-esqe... And, the news didnt help when it broke, as then they wanted to give it a catchy name, and allude to "was it accidental or not?"... Obviously, the first correction was not unintentional, but, when you try to fix an error, you are trying to fix it, not hiding it, yet, it brings peoples credibility and honesty into question...

Michael_Karanicolas1 karma

I'd refer back to Toby's earlier reply on that one. Without knowing any details, of course, if the mistake was caught earlier on, perhaps it would have caused less controversy than after there had been an attempt to "correct" it, and with more information made open by default, there would be more of a public trust that mistakes are human.

1tudore2 karma

Given your international experience, what do you see as critical differences in the norms of different governments? What less obvious factors contribute to organizations being more or less amenable to transparency? What factors contribute to populations being more or less engaged or effective in their advocacy?

Michael_Karanicolas1 karma

Different governments have enormous differences in the relative strengths of their access to information laws, including the public bodies which are subject to them, the breadth of exceptions, the procedures for access, etc. There are also, of course, huge differences in implementation - some right to information laws get passed and then completely ignored. One constant that I have learned though is that resistance to transparency is almost inevitable. Nobody likes being watched, or having oversight over their work, so the deciding factors for systems' success can often be whether there is an effective force to push the system forward to overcome this, like a strong information commission, or active and motivated civil society movement.

1tudore1 karma

Specialists (Forensic accountants come to mind) understand what data is crucial for establishing wrong-doing, but without their input, transparency laws may not be designed to require disclosure of the information vital to their work.

What kind of specialists are you working with? Who do you need more input from?

Michael_Karanicolas1 karma

We work with a range of actors - including environmental NGOs, LGBTQ rights activists, anti-poverty campaigners, women's rights campaigners - one of the cool things about this issue is it permeates so many areas of activism because everyone needs information from the government in order to work effectively. We (CLD) have never worked with forensic accountants specifically, but we're open to collaborating with everyone who can offer input on how information disclosure laws could be best tailored to suit demand.

uhaul261 karma

Do you like stuff?

Michael_Karanicolas2 karma

I find stuff to be delightful. Thanks for the question u/uhaul26.

frethought1 karma

I work in government (in the US) in the IT department, do you have any recommendations for software that makes it easier for both the overworked staff here to provide FOIA requests and also for the citizens to retrieve it?

Michael_Karanicolas1 karma

Apologies - I don't have specific software recommendations, as we deal more on the legal side. I am sure some of the other FOIAnetters may have recommendations, if they are still around.

ErrorRon1 karma

My question is who makes up these international days? Are they just made up on the spot?

Toby_Mendel1 karma

This one was first declared by a group of civil society activists 13 years ago in 2002. Since then, however, it has gone on to be recognised officially by a growing number of countries and there is now a movement to have it officially enshrined as a UN recognised day.

Michael_Karanicolas1 karma

Speaking of made up days though... Happy Cake Day Toby (check out the little picture next to your flair)!

PWN0GRAPHY2091 karma

How do you feel about anonymous?

Michael_Karanicolas1 karma

They do a lot of things that we can't countenance. Much as I might share their ire for some of their major targets, vigilanteism is a dangerous road to go down. There are advocacy options available within the law.

Jacksonspace1 karma

What should I know about what the American government is keeping quiet from the public? How can this information help our government evolve into a better political system?

Michael_Karanicolas2 karma

Information is the lifeblood of democracy - without which proper public accountability is impossible. A democratic system requires that voters have the information available to make an informed choice on matters of public importance. FOIA requests are one avenue, of course. It's not perfect - but I would encourage you to use the system all the same, and to vote for politicians who believe in transparency, and oppose the current war on whistleblowers that's taking place.

i_stole_your_swole1 karma

What information about our government do we NOT have the right to know?

Michael_Karanicolas2 karma

Right to information laws generally contain a series of exceptions, for information which can be withheld to protect against harm to a legitimate interest. Every system is different in how these are defined, but we think that those interests should be limited to: national security; international relations; public health and safety; the prevention, investigation and prosecution of legal wrongs; privacy; legitimate commercial and other economic interests; management of the economy; fair administration of justice and legal advice privilege; conservation of the environment; and legitimate policy making and other operations of public authorities.

If the information would cause harm to one of those interests, the public body should weigh the likely harm against the public interest in disclosure, to determine whether to withhold it.

SlashStar1 karma

Can I see your books?

koreth1 karma

What's your organization's position on "right to be forgotten" laws?

Michael_Karanicolas2 karma

That's a tricky one. We believe in privacy, we believe in freedom of expression, and we believe in the right to information - each of which pulls in a different direction on this issue.

We haven't fully established our position yet (we're currently working on a major report to explore this more fully), but I can say that there is a real privacy need there, and a need for laws and policies to catch up with the massive access to personal background information that the Internet provides. Everyone needs space to make mistakes without necessarily having that following them for their entire lives. However, the current system, where the European Court basically dumped this new responsibility into Google's lap with little or no guidance, is obviously problematic, and needs much more clarity.

infotrolllat1 karma

What about UFO's?

Michael_Karanicolas2 karma

I can't believe it's been 10 hours, and you're the first Redditor to ask about UFOs. You deserve this:

dodsfall1 karma


Michael_Karanicolas1 karma

I only understand five of those words.

NeedlessCritique1 karma

What is your deepest, darkest, most shameful secret? I have the International Right to Know.

Toby_Mendel2 karma

We had quite a racy discussion about that very issue last year, when we also did an AMA on a related theme. Unfortunately, the most intimate posts were ultimately removed (I checked recently, trying to interest someone into contributing to this AMA :)

NeedlessCritique1 karma

I hate so much about the things you choose to be.

If I had a gun with two bullets and I was in a room with Hitler, Bin Laden, and Toby, I would shoot Toby twice.

Michael_Karanicolas2 karma

That is an Office reference. Fun fact - the character who says that is named Michael.

Starboard_rigged1 karma

In your opinion do you think classified data leaks are beneficial or detrimental to open secrecy laws? Do you think there is a difference between total data dumps or selected leaks?

I find myself being more lenient in my opinion on the actions of the Media Burglars in comparison with my animosity for Edward Snowden and Private Manning, due to the Media Burglar's meticulous release of only relevant information(on cointelpro) to qualified recipients(The AP and House Oversight Committee) Vs. Snowden and Manning's dump all haphazard releases.

Also shameless plug for Dr. Jason Ross Arnold's "Secrecy in the Sunshine Era: The Promise and Failures of U.S. Open Government Laws"

Michael_Karanicolas1 karma

Some leaks are beneficial, some can be detrimental - it all depends on the specifics to determine where the public interest lies. Edward Snowden I think is a hero, who did the world a tremendous service, at great personal cost, and who shouldn't face any penalties for what he did. For Chelsea Manning, the case is a bit murkier, since some of the documents she released have significant public interest value (such as the collateral murder video), while for others that case is more difficult to make. States have legitimate reasons for wanting to keep diplomatic correspondence secret, for example.

Whistleblower laws generally mandate that the leaks should be targeted - so it's much more difficult to justify handing over an entire database rather than specific evidence of wrongdoing, particularly when the database contains information that can legitimately be withheld. Snowden took some precautions over his leak - handing it over with a pledge that the journalists would vet it and release it slowly, and then deleting his own copies before he travelled, where Manning didn't really approach it the same way. That said, I will note that Manning's treatment has been horrendous, and her sentence was far too harsh, in a clear attempt by the US administration to create a chilling effect against future whistleblowers.

Edited for TL:DR - It depends on the public interest involved. Snowden's a hero, Manning it's tougher to say, but even if what she did was wrong she hasn't deserved the punishment she got.

prssr1 karma

What do you think about cops?

Michael_Karanicolas2 karma

I engage with police a fair bit through the other branch of CLD's work, helping to develop respect for human rights and the like, particularly in emerging democracies. I find it's very much down to the individual officer. Some are motivated to do good work and improve their country, others are more concerned with filling their pockets and tripping off the power. It's tough to generalize - but I think being that position can lend prominence to either positive or negative personality traits.

ClitorisCatastrophe1 karma

What are the missile codes?

Michael_Karanicolas1 karma

I'll PM you the answer if you promise to only use them in the event of a real nuclear war or alien invasion. And in the latter case only if having Will Smith fly a renegade alien fighter into the mother ship is not a viable option.

blueredscreen1 karma

I always wanted to ask, what kind of stuff does the NSA have you do?

Michael_Karanicolas2 karma

Well we get our assignments in about twice a month and usually it consists of- w-a-a-a-a-a-i-t a minute!

Seriously though - the NSA, and its parallel agencies elsewhere (GCHQ, CSEC, etc.) are one area where more transparency is sorely needed, as there should be an open and public debate about how much privacy we are willing to sacrifice in the name of security.