Tuesday 21 June 2016

SumVoices: Transparency and Data Protection Are Tools Venezuela Needs

Our last installment of SumVoices featured Rim Hayat Chaif from Algeria, in English and Arabic. This month we bring you Venezuelan lawyer and digital rights activist, Marianne Díaz Hernández, in English and Spanish.

Venezuelan Lawyer and Digital Rights Activist Marianne Díaz Hernández
The ubiquity of technology is on the verge of becoming something we don’t notice anymore, something we take for granted and don’t give too much thought to. As this happens, the entities in charge of technology services only increase the amount of information they gather from our activities, and both companies and governments use this information to their advantage, sometimes against privacy laws, but even more so in places where these laws don’t exist. In Venezuela, there are no laws regarding data protection, including its collection or handling. At the same time, the government is gathering vast amounts of data (regarding everything from fingerprints to food consumption) and locking this information behind walls, making it unavailable to citizens and civil society in general.

While on one hand, personal data and metadata are collected without following any standards and private communications are violated regularly, on the other hand, government-related information is unavailable or buried deep within neverending layers of bureaucracy. The main argument against stating that Venezuela has the highest inflation and murder rates in the world lies in the fact that there are no official figures for this or for a number of other public issues: diseases and epidemics, food distribution and scarcity, hunger and poverty, and economic indicators are only released at the government’s convenience and cannot be requested by citizens. A couple of years ago, one NGO requested information regarding how many websites were being blocked by the government (about 1,500, according to independent investigations), and the reasons and procedures for such blockages. The Supreme Court answer was to declare all telecommunications information to be a “state secret” and to declare that this NGO had no standing to request such information.

A lack of legal standards regarding access to information can be damaging to both transparency and privacy. Not having established which data is considered public (and must be released) and which data is considered private (and must be protected) can create an environment in which information flows according to the particular interests of power-holding public and private actors, rather than according to public interest. As citizens, the lack of control we have over our private information can be used as a tool for oppression, censorship, and political influence. In Venezuela’s case, for instance, the interconnectedness of biometric information, which is used in electoral systems and in food distribution systems, is perceived by citizens as if their political stance might have a direct impact on their ability to feed themselves and their families. It follows that people might feel inclined to restrain themselves from getting involved in the political life of the country as a self-preservation measure.

The Venezuelan Congress is currently debating the draft of a bill which, if approved, would become the first law to regulate the handling and sharing of public information. This law would provide citizens with legal tools to request public information from the government, and also for accountability mechanisms in the event that public servants do not fulfill their duty to release public information. Although this might seem a bare minimum standard for open data, for Venezuela it would mean a transcendental change in how public policies are created and applied, and in how citizens can become involved in policy making and accountability processes. It is a great opportunity to create a set of standards regarding not only public information but the boundaries between public and private, along with mechanisms that would allow citizens to take steps in protecting their private information in the hands of State actors. While the ability to gain information regarding public processes and policy making is a powerful tool for transparency, innovation and the fight against corruption, the ability to control how our personal data is collected, treated, stored and shared might be one of the most important guarantees that can be gained in the protection of online freedoms.

Marianne Díaz Hernández previously contributed to SumVoices with "Digital Security Starts With Contextual Risk Assessment" ("La seguridad digital comienza con el analisis de riesgos contextual"). She is involved in initiatives including Creative Commons Venezuela and Acesso Libre, contributes to Global Voices and guest blogs for Amnesty International. Follow her @mariannedh.

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