What if Google Enabled FOIA Requests?

I’m attending the “Regulating Search?” symposium hosted by the Yale Information Society Project today. The first panel was on “The Search Space,” and Robin Sloan, co-producer of the (in)famous “EPIC 2014” movie on “the future history of media,” posed an interesting thought experiment:

What if Google (or any equivalent search company) enabled Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests?

There are many interesting implications with this idea. On one hand, the ability to search and have instant access to all government information (that is generally subject to FOIA) is of great public interest. Awareness of government activities would increase, as would the government’s level of accountability to its citizens. Armed with more information, public discourse might increase, leading to a more robust deliberative democratic society.

On the other hand, having my FBI file (or my wife’s, or my employer’s, etc) searchable by anyone fosters privacy concerns similar to the general rise of online public records. Previously, the flow of even public information was constrained via the “security through obscurity” principle: while publicly-available, access to such information had costs (economic, temporal, etc). If all government information was indexable and accessible by anyone at anytime, the “contextual integrity” of the flow of personal information that might be contained in government records could be threatened.

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