Information Policy: Broadening our Perspective on the Issue for the Digital Age
There is widespread awareness that we are living in a post-industrial, information society, as we have learned from such seminal thinkers as Daniel Bell (1973). Given such an awareness, it is surprising to that the study of “information policy” is not more prominent.
There are notable exceptions. With apologies to those I leave out, three exceptions come quickly to mind. For example, there is a significant journal published by Penn State University Press, entitled the Journal of Information Policy, which appropriately defines the term ‘broadly’ and with an understanding that our understanding of information policy is likely to continue to evolve. A scholar inspired by the issues raised by Bell, Alistair Duff, edited a recent collection on ‘information policy’ research (Duff 2021), that also provides a very broad and well-structured view on the field with excellent chapters by yours truly as well as many prominent and early career academics. In addition, Professor Sandra Braman, the John Paul Abbott Professor of Liberal Arts at Texas A&M University, is the academic editor of an MIT Press book series entitled ‘Information Policy’.
However, I would argue that these are among prominent exceptions and that information policy is more often narrowly defined or side-lined by related policy perspectives.
The narrow definition is illustrated by prominent cites arising in search for ‘information policy’. An example is its definition as a “set of guidelines, regulations, and laws that determines how information can be stored, provided, and used”, defined by an article on information management (Jaeger, et al 2005). You can see in this definition how the concept of information policy is tied to legacy definitions of the management of information in organizations – narrower than modern conceptions of information policy might be viewed. However, such narrow definitions of information policy are reinforced by the prominence of key legal issues, such as around the ownership of information.
The side-lining of information policy is one critique of Professor Duff, noted above, who is an Emeritus Professor of Information Policy. On LinkedIn, through informal personal correspondence with me, Alistair argued that information policy is what he aptly called a ‘Cinderella’ term, suffering undeserved neglect by falling ‘between stools’. It ‘overlaps with media policy, telecoms policy and other well-established fields’, to which I would add internet policy, new media policy, copyright policy, policy on intellectual property, communication law and policy, freedom of expression, privacy, and more. Information policy has been sliced, diced, and often side-lined by a multitude of perspectives.
A closely related problem is the very definition of information in relation to technology and policy. The traditional conceptions of information technology were well accepted and broadly defined until the phenomenal rise of communication within the IT space, such as with social media and user-generated-content. In the 1990s, my colleagues and I moved from the use of IT to using ‘information and communication technology’ (ICT) to signal the growing importance of communication (Dutton 1996). But the terminology defining the new media, communication, and information technologies remains unsettled as often suggested by the use of the ‘digital’ age. This can invite the term ‘information’ to be more narrowly defined than I and many others would wish to define it.
What can be done?
From decades in academia, I’ve learned is that these definitional issues simply cannot be ‘legislated’ or dictated by any scholar. Most often, unremarkable ‘insider debates’ over the definitions of terms simply go on with occasional winners and losers, but as the old British cliché puts it: Stay calm and carry on. Academics simply need to define the terms they use and not assume their definition is commonly accepted. Journals and book series define their scope by the work they publish. The dynamics of peer reviews, citations, mentorship, and more tend to evolve our definitions of unsettled terms.
Another, complementary lesson is that multiple perspectives are generally better than privileging one definition. In that sense, information policy is a very useful perspective as it focuses more attention on the bottom line of new media, communication, and information technologies, which is who gets access to – and controls access to – information. All the many factors that shape access and control to information in different contexts are brought into focus by the concept of information policy, broadly defined. But there is no need to let information policy side-line other, equally legitimate perspectives on internet, media, communication, and information policy.
Bell, Daniel (1973), The Coming of Post-Industrial Society. New York: Basic Books.
Duff, Alistair S. (2021) (ed.), Research Handbook on Information Policy. Cheltenham, UK: Edward Elgar.
Dutton, William. H. (1996) (ed.), with the assistance of Malcolm Peltu, Information and Communication Technologies – Visions and Realities. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press.
Jaeger, Paul T., Thompson, Kim M., and McClure, Charles R. (2005), Information Management, pp. 277-82 in Encyclopedia of Social Measurement. Elsevier: https://doi.org/10.1016/B0-12-369398-5/00531-4
 The MIT book series can be found at: https://mitpress.mit.edu/series/information-policy/
 As one example, take the ownership of information produced by universities and their faculty, as discussed by Ian Walmsley: https://researchprofessionalnews.com/rr-news-uk-views-of-the-uk-2022-11-help-universities-escape-the-innovation-dilemma/