It is often said that knowledge is power and there is no doubt that in many cases those in possession of a particular piece of knowledge will have the advantage, for good or ill, over those who do not. Governments and rulers of all ilk and political leanings, as well as powerful corporations, have had and now enjoy a privileged position in terms of having access to certain facts. This privilege has often been justified in paternalistic terms, we know what’s good for you or, there are things which it is better for you not to know. With the increasing lack of trust in governing institutions and the feeling that censorship is by and large used to deny access to potentially damning information about those who are in charge, people are increasingly asserting their right to know. This issue raises a number of questions none of which necessarily have straightforward answers. On what is this right to know based? If asserted, what is it a right to? Do others also have a right to know about us? To what extent is this reciprocal? Do those in public office have any right to privacy? To what extent are governments best placed to withhold knowledge?
Censorship has a very long history. In ancient times whether in China, Greece or Rome, there was an assumption that the management of access to knowledge was rightly in the hands of those in power, and that this was largely exercised in the interests of the governed. This point of view has clearly been, and continues to be, shared by decision makers elected (or not) in various parts of the world. However, there is a sense in which this privilege has been under attack for some time and in particular from the Enlightenment period onwards when the implementation of individual rights became an increasing expectation. There is no doubt that governments and institutions the world over can use censorship to protect themselves from scrutiny and accountability. However, is this always the case, and to what degree should every individual be able to access all available information?
To begin with, what grounds is this right to know really based on? Generally a right has to be granted by something or someone in a position to do so although any potential answer runs into the dilemma of where their right to confer rights comes from in the first place. In many ways it is difficult to divorce the right to know from democratic systems. If those who govern have been elected to represent us it is assumed that we have a right to know whether this is indeed what they are doing. Having said that, even in democracies, there is a sense in which some facts should be made available purely on a need to know basis. This could include information necessary for people to protect themselves from harmful things or, especially in times of war, information which should not be widely available in case national interests are put at risk. With the development of technology, it is now easier than ever to access information of almost any kind. Conversely, governments and corporations are now able to harvest a great deal of information about almost every aspect of our daily lives. Should we, as some suggest, have an automatic right to know what is known about us?
The issues connected to the right to know are really about the limits of our access to knowledge, whether there should be any, where the boundaries should lie, who is to decide the latter and on what basis. Whether in our public or private lives, the ability to access knowledge is an important way in which we can be informed in order to make the best possible decisions. Access to knowledge can be a tremendously empowering thing, but maybe we should also learn to discriminate between what we want to know and what we need to know. Unfortunately, and despite the efforts of many who continue to push for our freedom to be informed, it seems that knowledge very much remains in the hands of those who have the power to make it accessible, or to hide it from us – as the old adage has it, plus ça change…