The wheels of justice may turn slowly, but tech ramifications sometimes turn around on a shorter timetable.
The U.S. Supreme Court’s 2022 overruling of its landmark 1973 Roe v. Wade decision—alongside subsequent state-level prosecutions for abortions—provoked a proprivacy backlash now wending its way through administrations and legislatures. At the same time, though, there may be a catch. Between industry lobbying and legislative mistakes, some of the proposed or recent rules may leave room for data brokers to still profit and for buyers to still continue obtaining people’s locations without explicit consent.
At the moment, unlike in the early 1970s when the previous Supreme Court precedent was set, broad-sweeping digital tool kits are widely available. In states tightening their abortion laws and seeking to prosecute women seeking or obtaining abortions in defiance of those laws, prosecutors have access to mobile-phone location histories—currently available on the open market throughout the United States.
“I think there is increased anxiety that is being spurred in part by the overruling of Roe v. Wade,” says Alex Marthews, national chair of Restore the Fourth, a civil-society organization in Boston. “There is anxiety about residents’ browser and location information being subject to information requests in states that have essentially outlawed abortion,” he says.
During heat waves in Phoenix, while some people fry eggs on sidewalks, Matt Heath, a heating, ventilation, and air-conditioning (HVAC) service manager at AC by J, is on the front line, helping maintain air conditioners in people’s homes. Heath has great job security: Half of Phoenix residents are at risk of an emergency-room visit or worse if their electricity fails during a future heat wave, according to a recent study. Air-conditioning is what keeps people there comfortable—and alive—a growing fraction of the year. The extreme heat already kills hundreds of Phoenix-area residents every year, a number that went up by 25 percent from 2021 to 2022.
Phoenix is a harbinger of life in the many hot parts of the world that are getting richer, where people are demanding ever more air conditioners. This in turn exacerbates the extremes of climate change due to increased demand for fossil-fuel-intensive sources of electricity, as well as leakage of refrigerants, themselves noteworthy greenhouse gases. “Most of the growth of air-conditioning will be in other countries,” says mechanical engineer Vince Romanin, cofounder and CEO of the San Francisco–based Gradient Comfort, “and restricting access is not fair.” Instead, he and others are trying to invent new climate-control technology that doesn’t further increase the dangers facing the planet’s climate.
Public entities in Italy, Germany and Spain have one calendar month to respond to requests for access to public information. They do not even always meet this deadline, which is the longest of the countries examined in a Civio-led investigation by members of the European Data Journalism Network (EDJnet).
At the other extreme is Slovakia, which grants its authorities only eight working days, excluding weekends and public holidays. Poland, Portugal, Croatia and the Czech Republic, allow almost half a month to respond to requests made through their transparency laws. Slovenia and Greece allow 20 working days, which places them almost at the bottom of the countries analysed.
What the ten European countries surveyed do share is a general lack of compliance with transparency rules. “The law is good. The problem is its implementation,” says Croatian journalist Dijana Pribačić Jurić of H-Alter. “We have had cases where, after a lengthy administrative procedure, we received information on our journalistic requests only after two to three years, when they are no longer relevant in a ransljournalistic sense,” adds Toni Gabrić, editor in chief of the same media outlet. The same happens in Spain, Portugal and Greece, according to sources interviewed by Civio.
What the ten European countries surveyed do share is a general lack of compliance with transparency rules. “The law is good. The problem is its implementation,” says Croatian journalist Dijana Pribačić Jurić of H-Alter. “We have had cases where, after a lengthy administrative procedure, we received information on our journalistic requests only after two to three years, when they are no longer relevant in a journalistic sense,” adds Toni Gabrić, editor in chief of the same media outlet. The same happens in Spain, Portugal and Greece, according to sources interviewed by Civio.
Why the exercise of the right of access to public information (often) fails
Unfortunately, it is not common for access requests to be satisfied within a reasonable period of time, even with a favourable opinion from a transparency council, if it does exist. “If the entity does not provide information or does not reply, the only option is to demand it through administrative litigation. This can take years, even a decade,” says Daniel Kerekes, data journalist at the Slovak organisation Denník N. In Spain, public entities sometimes ignore rulings by the Council for Transparency and Good Governance, which has no sanctioning power.
Box: On trial to defend the right to know
This reality makes it difficult, in practice, to exercise the right to know. In Italy, according to Luca Giunti of the organisation Openpolis, “the procedure has an implicit cost in terms of time and resources (e.g. lawyers who can follow the case)”, which means that a large proportion of citizens do not make requests for access or, if necessary, do not follow up with legal demands.
In Germany, according to Arne Semsrott, spokesperson for FragDenStaat, “the main problems are slow answers and fees; it’s possible for authorities to take up to 500 € per request” if it will take more than a nominal amount of time. Not only that: although the deadline for a decision under federal law is one month, those who request information and do not get it must wait three months to complain. This means that in many cases, the actual time to respond to requests is longer than the four weeks set by law.
As a result, the common trend is that requesters must fight almost constantly to obtain data from public administrations. In addition, authorities can also limit access to public information by restrictions that turn into real barriers. Among the usual exemptions are the right to privacy, economic and commercial interests, or national security. The application of these limits is often uneven, creating uncertainty for requesters. This is the case in Poland, for example: “The reasons for not providing information can be arbitrary,” says editor Urszula Kifer of Frontstory.
Except for Italy and Spain, whose transparency laws are more recent, most of the countries surveyed in this investigation have transparency laws that date back almost a quarter of a century, yet those countries have not resolved the problems with implementing their transparency laws. In other cases, such as in Greece, regulatory gobbledegook hinders the right of access. This is an obstacle for ensuring transparency, despite the fact that, according to the sources consulted, on paper, the regulations marked a turning point in public accountability.
First published by Civio in Spanish and English: [html] [pdf].
In Madrid, a few years ago, two teams of kids were playing football. A young boy scored a goal and set off in celebration, but then something odd happened – the opposing team’s managers asked the referee to stop the game. The boy, they argued, was too old to be on the pitch.
Dolores Galindo, the president of the Dragones de Lavapiés football club, was there. Lavapiés is one of Madrid’s melting-pot neighbourhoods, and it was one of her players who scored the goal. The boy wasn’t too old, she says. He was entitled to play. But on the other hand, she says, he did have darker skin.