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Information Transparency and Time Stamps

This article is the original version. The edited version was published on Koran Tempo on November 29, 2017.

Louis Brandeis, an America's Supreme Court Justices from 1916-1939, was known as the Justice who represented and protected the interests of the people. He developed the 'right to privacy' concept and helped create the Federal Reserve System, or the central bank in America, an institution that protects the public interest from the institutional grips of powerful banks at the time. In 1903, he introduced the concept of government accountability to society, which we now know as transparency. He emphasized three transparency concepts that underpin good governance: The collection and dissemination of government data and/or information, open meetings at the government institutions, and the role of NGOs in making government more transparent.

As a figure who cared deeply about community service and government accountability, one of his most famous sayings is 'sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants' from his work, 'What Publicity Can Do' (1913). He uses this expression in the context of governance to say that transparency is an antidote to corruption and unaccountable governmental practices.

In the context of Indonesia, Indonesia has issued Law Number 14/2008 on Public Information Disclosure, which states that people have the right to obtain information. In the vein of transparency concept put forward by Brandeis, information disclosure is one of the characteristics of a democratic state and is also a means to optimize public accountability of the government.

Under this philosophy, and in the interest of achieving equitable natural resource management in Indonesia, civil society groups requested to then-Ministry of Forestry, and subsequently the Ministry of Environment and Forestry (MoEF), that information primarily linked to the extent and locations such as Timber Forest Product Utilization Permit (IUPHHK), Timber Utilization Permit (IPK), and Timber Forest Product Utilization Work Plan (RKUPHKK), are to be accessible to the public in digital format of shapefile. Shapefile is geospatial data format that can be analyzed with geospatial information software. Therefore, in the context of public monitoring, events in forests and landscapes can be spatially known, including clearing of forests in protected areas or locations of fires.

Essentially, such request for information disclosure is the manifestation of the role of NGOs supporting the Indonesian government to be more transparent and accountable.

On October 24, 2016, the assembly of the Central Information Disclosure Council decided that MoEF is to disclose the above information in shapefile format. This means that the requested information has been legally examined in terms of security, safety and sovereignty of the country. However, on November 7, 2016, MoEF filed an appeal to the State Administrative High Court on the basis of concern that the format would be easily manipulated and misused by the public. It was mentioned that MoEF does not yet possess digital signature technology or digital watermarking as a marker of legality and authenticity of information. Through the Supreme Court Decision in June 2017, MoEF obtained the legal right not to disseminate the information in shapefile format.

As a result of these decisions, public monitoring activities that utilize information on shapefile format (such as the analysis of causes and locations of forest and land fires, illegal logging, forest encroachment, drivers of deforestation, overlapping of forests, and plantation and mining concessions) cannot be done. Public participation to ensure that natural resources are used equitably for all Indonesians does not work effectively.

It is necessary to keep in mind that any data and/or information created digitally will have a timestamp –the time at which an event is recorded by the computer, not the time of the event itself. In the Information Technology sector, a timestamp is a sequence of characters or encoded information indicating when an event occurs in units of dates, hours, minutes, even up to seconds or milliseconds. Thus, every shapefile produced by MoEF has a timestamp that becomes a unique marker of information generated (permissions, maps, etc.). The unique timestamp marker has even been set in ISO8601. Anyone who then manipulates it on the basis of any interest will create a different timestamp. Even if manipulation is done a tenth of a minute from the submission of data and/or shapefile information to the public, the timestamp will change.

Any data and/or information, whether the Industrial Plantation Forest licensing map, the Timber Forest Product Utilization Business Plan map, or similar information, in the form of shapefile issued by MoEF is essentially final –in the sense that has been approved by authorized officers and has a unique timestamp. Thus, the timestamp recorded in the MoEF information system has actually served as a digital signature.

Simply put, KLHK can set metadata standards i.e. structured information that explains how some information from data is easy to rediscover, use, or manage. Such standards may apply to any data and/or information in both digital and non-digital formats, and timestamp is one of its elements. The Draft Presidential Regulation on One Data, initiated by the Office of the Presidential Staff, BAPPENAS, the Central Bureau of Statistics, and the Geospatial Information Agency, has contained the provisions.

In an open governance framework that promotes collaboration between government, NGOS and individual community members, it is important to place them as equal partners with the government. Doubting the good intentions of the community in using government data and/or information will not strengthen government accountability. Conversely, educating and guiding people to use government data and/or information in a responsible manner promotes good governance practices.

Currently, community participation to ensure that natural resources are used equitably for the wider community has not been very effective. To refer to Brandeis's analogy, it seems that today, it takes more than sunlight as a disinfectant to kill the germs.

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