Access to Information in the Private Sector: African Inspiration for U.S. FOIA Reform
The Freedom of Information Act of 1966 (FOIA) was a landmark global example of transparency, or access to information (ATI), to ensure democratically accountable governance. Government had grown in the twentieth century, especially in the new administrative state, and FOIA re-balanced the distribution of power between people and public authority. Today in the twenty-first century, much power in American society has migrated from the public sector to the private sector, specifically into the hands of corporations. Even insofar as it works well, FOIA operates only against the conventional state by enabling an individual’s capacity to realize civil and political rights. FOIA simply was not designed to enable the attainment of human necessities such as education and housing, much less environmental protection and healthcare, especially when the greatest threat to those rights is not government deprivation, but the commercial marketplace.
ATI in Africa is a different story. Three decades after FOIA, planted among the unprecedented ambitions of the South African constitution was a right to ATI. And within that right lay an extraordinary new provision. As guaranteed by the South African constitution and enabling law, a person may request records from a nongovernmental respondent, a private body, if the person can show that the records are “required for the exercise or protection of any rights.” In other words, South African ATI law jettisoned the historic barrier between public and private sectors. South African lawmakers were informed by the experience of apartheid, in which the private sector’s complicity had been a vital and brutal partner in state-sanctioned human rights abuse.
Blossoming beyond even the visioning of an apartheid remedy, ATI in the private sector has been construed by the courts in a wide range of applications, from intrafamilial business disputes to environmental conservation. South African courts have struggled to define “required” and “rights” in applying the ATI law. But South Africa has demonstrated that ATI in the private sector can work. The public-private division justifies a change in the terms of access, but not an absolute barrier. In the last five years, the South African approach has been reiterated in the domestic law of at least five other African countries and in pan-African human rights instruments meant to inspire more domestic adoptions.
In this article, I suggest that the African example inspire U.S. FOIA reform. In its time, FOIA shone a light into the darkest corners of American politics. Now America deserves a new approach to restore power to the people in the age of the corporation.
Richard Peltz-Steele, Access to Information in the Private Sector: African Inspiration for U.S. FOIA Reform, 63 VILLANOVA L. REV. 907 (2019).