Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Information Control!

Information has always been an instrument of power. Governments often use other forms of power to control information - it's just another tool in the Leviathan's arsenal. But in this day and age, I believe they do so at their own peril. After all, we live in an era where information is increasingly available and difficult to 'enclose'. In the old days of Stalin's Soviet Union, the dictator literally went into state archives and destroyed what were often the only existing records about a particular issue (he would then mercilessly murder individuals who knew of those records), wheareas in today's digital age it is sometimes virtually impossible to 'destroy' information - there is always a record out there somewhere. Hence North Korean and Chinese citizens who find ways to access websites which the state has banned, or Americans who through WikiLeaks learn of their own government's international misdemeanors.

This makes a recent article I read by Elizabeth May all the more disconcerting. It has to do with the 'muzzling' of scientists who work for Canadian government departments, particularly the Department of Fisheries and Oceans. These scientists do very important research about the Arctic, and their studies reveal a whole lot about the rapid pace of climatic change in our world. Yet new policies brought forward by the Harper government make it extremely difficult for those scientists to share what they learn. They must seek permission before publishing their research in journals, and their messaging is vetted by the higher-ups in the government's PR machine. The scientists have reported feeling that they work in a 'chilling' atmosphere. Whereas one would think that the information public servants produce belongs to the public, the new policy has informed them that it belongs to their employer.

What's particularly disconcerting about this form of information control is that it appears to be designed in a way that blocks the information from being 'produced' in the first place. For instance, it's not about forbidding a journal article from being accessed by Canadians, it's about forbidding the scientist from writing the article in the first place. As an academic I can only share my dismay with this muzzling of scientists as reported by May and other credible sources. It's something we Canadians need to address.

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