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Blacked Out: Government Secrecy in the Information Age [Hardcover]

Alasdair Roberts

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Book Description

Jan. 30 2006 0521858704 978-0521858700 1
In 1966 the United States Congress passed the landmark Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) giving the public the right to access government documents. This "right to know" has been used over the intervening years to challenge overreaching Presidents and secretive government agencies. This example of governmental transparency has served as an inspiring case in point to nations around the world, spawning similar statutes in fifty-nine countries. Yet, despite these global efforts to foster openness in government, secrecy still persists--and in many cases--sometimes thrives. Alasdair Roberts, a prominent lawyer, public policy expert, and international authority on transparency in government, examines the evolution of the trend toward governmental openness and how technological developments have assisted the disclosure and dissemination of information. In the process he offers a comprehensive look at the global efforts to restrict secrecy and provides readers with a clearly written guide to those areas where the battle over secrecy is most intense. Drawing on cases from many different countries, Roberts goes further than the popular view that secrecy is simply a problem of selfish bureaucrats trying to hide embarrassing information by showing how such powerful trends as privatization, globalization, and the "networking" of security agencies are complicating the fight against secrecy. In our time when new terror threats provoke potentially counter-productive measures that impede openness, the need for a thorough and dispassionate discussion of openness in democratic societies is especially acute. Written in an engaging style, Blacked Out powerfully illustrates why transparency matters and why the struggle for openness is so difficult. Alasdair Roberts is Associate Professor in the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs and Director of the Campbell Public Affairs Institute at Syracuse University. An internationally-recognized specialist on open government, he has written over thirty journal articles and book chapters. He is a 2005 recipient of the Johnson Award for Best Paper in Ethics and Accountability in the Public Sector. He has been a fellow of the Open Society Institute and the Woodrow Wilson Center for Scholars, and is a member of the Initiative for Policy Dialogue's Transparency Task Force.

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From Publishers Weekly

The conflict between expanding national security measures and preserving civil rights gets an extended examination in this timely history of the right to know. Lawyer and public policy scholar Roberts's occasionally exhausting book covers the right to know movement in a global and historical sense, touching on transparency movements and backlash domestically and internationally (the Freedom of Information Act's 1966 passing, Roberts notes, spurred the creation of similar laws in 60 countries) to show how governments across the world go to great lengths to dip, dodge, skirt and subvert openness laws. His account of the post-9/11 Bush administration depicts a secretive administration that bristles at attempts to reduce the secrecy under which it has conducted the war on terror. As Roberts demonstrates through countless examples, there are various ways for a government to subvert its own right-to-know laws without technically breaking any (classifying non-sensitive information, outsourcing operations, charging fees for information requests), sullying any optimism about the "rhetoric of transparency" that has been spreading as far as China in the past few decades. Roberts remains mindful that the "right to know" isn't a guarantee, but a struggle worth pursuing.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.


Alasdair Roberts' Blacked Out is a fast-paced, well-informed and engrossing account of the emergence of a worldwide movement to hold governments accountable by requiring them to disclose information they would rather withhold to conceal corruption, bureaucratic incompetence, environmental degradation, human rights abuses and other misconduct. It is essential reading for proponents of open societies.
-Aryeh Neier, President, Open Society Institute

"Alasdair Roberts has written a monumentally important book, not only about secrecy and the right-to-know movement, but about the deeply troubling 'ethic of detachment' and quiescence of the American public. What good is significant information about abuses of power if there is no accountability, if no one acts on that information?"
-Charles Lewis, President, The Fund for Independence in Journalism

"Professor Roberts provides keen insights into the power struggle over secretiveness in supranational institutions...Blacked Out makes it crystal clear that the game has changed drastically when it comes to guarding citizens' right to information about the activities conducted by governments and their private surrogates."
-Doris Graber, University of Illinois

"Blacked Out, is an accessible and detailed account of the rise and partial fall of the information disclosure culture in governments around the world."
-Craig Forcese, Ottawa Law Review

"Roberts describes the tactics that politicians and bureaucrats have used to preserve government secrecy, explains how profound changes in the structure of government-notably privatization of public services-are complicating campaigns for openness, and notes how new information technologies sometimes enhance openness, but sometimes create barriers."
-Future Survey

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on (beta) 4.7 out of 5 stars  3 reviews
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Worldwide Exposure Sept. 14 2007
By doomsdayer520 - Published on
Many Americans are aware of our Freedom of Information Act, but the politics and logistics behind government transparency and citizen access to information are very complicated. In this mostly fascinating book, Roberts tackles the intricacies of this little-understood matter, and gains many unique and practical insights into what "freedom of information" really brings. Amidst comparative coverage of information disclosure statutes and politics in countries around the world (dozens of nations have been inspired by our FOIA), Roberts looks into the tendency of governments towards secrecy, the trend among world populations to demand access to information, and the unexpected burdens that disclosure laws can impose on both politicians and activists. Roberts delves into some surprising areas like government manipulation of the disclosure process to indirectly maintain secrecy, the bureaucratic burdens of disclosure rules amongst different types of governmental bodies, the over-collected nature of government information in the digital age, the lack of transparency amongst private contractors that are now performing governmental functions (such as the operation of prisons), and the trend amongst supra-national bodies (like the World Bank and IMF) to demand American-style disclosure rules in developing nations while refusing to follow such practices themselves.

This book is held back from true greatness a bit, because Roberts tries a little too hard to see all sides of the story, and while he is generally in favor of government transparency, his "fair and balanced" regard for certain types of government secrecy prevent the book from reaching a forceful and authoritative conclusion. Another problem is that Roberts misses the opportunity to expand his coverage of the international scene into a worldwide theory of information disclosure, as his coverage of information laws in other countries keeps coming back to conclusions about American political trends. But aside from those structural issues, Roberts certainly illustrates, with great insight, that freedom of information is vastly more complex than most people would realize. Great freedom comes with great responsibility. [~doomsdayer520~]
5.0 out of 5 stars Way before its time. May 19 2009
By S. Soyer - Published on
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
Alastair Roberts went deep into the meanderings of government transparency provided in the Information Age, from country to country explaining the importance of FOIA--adopted, molded, modified, and abused--laws regarding government secrecy. The balancing act of each country, each culture to release information, sensitive to the security of each is discussed in esoteric detail. The stories told will at first mystify the logical mind, and confuse the already mystified looking for something that makes sense--the author will give you evidence that makes sense. Governments typically do not find it natural to release information that can cause disturbance within policies that protect both the governmental entity and the people at the same time. And since the author is well informed in his knowledge of the intricacies of law and information age, he covers all territories of the subject to professorial status. The newness of FOIA in its different experimental stages worldwide creates problems for all governments, typically overwhelmed by requests, not being able to provide answers in a timely manner, thus frustrating those people who request until ultimately the government becomes lax in its ability to follow the law, reforms it, reducing its effectiveness, until it is excused for its failures. The push and pull of information regarding secrecy in and out of governments, seems too much of a burden.

Ultimately, anyone who is interested in the full framework of the disclosure of government information, needs to read this book. Questions that come up as a result of frustration from the average citizen, will be answered fully, as the author gives us examples of how difficult FOIA in its different forms poses.
1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Unbiased Reading Sept. 27 2007
By L. Ganesh - Published on
This book is eye opening, motivating and makes you want to investigate further. Its a great read for everyone no matter what your concentration is. Its keeps you captivated until the end - filled with facts about various organizations and governments! It stimulates conversation in any group setting. Enjoy!!!

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