A tribute to Anne Wells Branscomb

Anne Wells Branscomb died on October 3rd, 1997. 3 years before, she published a book, Who Owns Information? From Privacy to Public Access, that was to influence deeply my thinking and my choices. That was because of the questions she asked. I differ on many of the answers she gave to these questions, and more generally we come from very different cultures and backgrounds. But the questions and the principles she outlined to address them stayed with me. Yesterday, I found a copy of her book on my bookshelves, and in it a letter that she wrote to me a few months before her death, just to thank me for a letter of praise for her book. I browsed through the pages, and little miracle of the physical memory of paper, the book (original paperback edition of 1994) opened at page 181, where 13 principles of fundamental information-related rights are listed. Here is the list:

  1. Secrecy: the right to prevent disclosure of information
  2. Privacy: the right to prevent unwelcome and unauthorized intrusions
  3. Confidentiality: the right to release information with restrictions, to prevent others from obtaining the information without the subject’s consent
  4. Publicity: the right to release information into the public domain at a time of place of one’s own choosing
  5. Commerciality: the right to sell information for fair value
  6. Accessibility: the right to obtain information
  7. Reciprocity: the right to receive value in exchange for value given
  8. Integrity: the right to control the accuracy and reliability of information
  9. Interoperability: the right to transparency in the transfer of information
  10. Responsibility: the duty to act responsibly
  11. Liability: the right to have grievances redressed
  12. Commonality: the right to share information in the public domain
  13. Equity: the right to have no wrong go unrighted

Many of these rights (or duties) have been invoked abusively. For instance 5. Commerciality has been invoked to claim barriers to the usage of information that are incompatible with privacy, accessibility, interoperability and commonality. But this list is a wonderful platform for thinking about information. In my own list of 7 positive intellectual rights, I retained Commonality, Publicity, Reciprocity, Accessibility, and Integrity. I added Creation and Quotation. The omission of these rights of reuse is of course representative of the limits of thinking about information at the time of Who owns information?. But Anne Wells Branscomb had done the largest part of what I came to consider as my task. I had not forgotten about the book, often mentioned it to friends, but did not remember this list. Then, exhausted from trips and overworking I walked randomly in my apartment, and marvels of perception, I spotted the book … because it was wrongly placed in alphabetic order. I opened it, and here is the list. Thanks.
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