Tag Archives: freedom of information

Reflections on ‘Freedom of Information’ at 250

Freedom of Information Act Sweden and Finland 1766

In December 2016, the Information Law and Policy Centre co-organised an event celebrating the 250th anniversary of the world’s first law providing a right to information. It was hosted by free expression NGO, Article 19 at the Free Word Centre and supported by the Embassies of Sweden and Finland. A full programme of the event and the audio files are available on the Campaign for Freedom of Information website. In this post, Judith Townend and Daniel Bennett reflect on a few of the key themes discussed at the event. 

Accessing information may no longer feel like a pressing problem. We live in an age of global telecommunications, the internet and the smartphone with access to ubiquitous 24/7 media coverage on demand. Our data is collected, tracked, mapped and analysed by social media networks, search engines, commercial enterprises, governments and public authorities around the world. And yet, 250 years after the first law providing for a right to information was passed, the right for us – the public – to access information relating to the administration of state power remains a struggle.

Our ‘Freedom of Information at 250’ event sought to put this struggle into its historical context. The event celebrated and commemorated the signing into law of ‘His Majesty’s Gracious Ordinance Relating to Freedom of Writing and of the Press’ on 2nd December 1766.¹ Enacted by the Riksdag (parliament) of Sweden – which then also included Finland – this was the world’s first law to promise public access to governmental information. Continue reading

Network Neutrality: From policy to law to regulation

network-neutrality-coverBook launch at the Institute of Advanced Legal Studies
Charles Clore House
17 Russell Square
London WC1B 5DR
6pm – 8pm, 9 February 2017

This event is FREE but advanced booking is required on the IALS Events Calendar

Speaker: Professor Christopher T. Marsden: Professor of Internet Law, (University of Sussex Law School)

Discussants: Dr Angela Daly, Vice-Chancellor’s Research Fellow, (Queensland University of Technology Faculty of Law); Research Associate, Tilburg Institute of Law, Technology and Society; Professor Ian Walden, Professor of Information and Communications Law, (Queen May, University of London.)

Net neutrality is the most contested Internet access policy of our time. This book offers an in-depth explanation of the concept, addressing its history since 1999, its engineering, the policy challenges it represents and its legislation and regulation.

Various case studies are presented, including Specialized Services and Content Delivery Networks for video over the Internet, and the book goes on to examine the future of net neutrality battles in Europe, the United States and developing countries, as well as offering co-regulatory solutions based on FRAND and non-exclusivity.

It will be a must-read for researchers and advocates in the net neutrality debate, as well as those interested in the context of communications regulation, law and economic regulation, human rights discourse and policy, and the impact of science and engineering on policy and governance.

This seminar will be followed by the book launch of “Network Neutrality: From Policy to Law to Regulation” by Christopher Marsden, (Manchester University Press, 2017).

Freedom of Information at 250: now on Storify

Last week, Article 19 held the ‘Freedom of Information at 250‘ event at the Free Word Centre. The aim of the event was to commemorate, celebrate and scrutinise the adoption of the first freedom of information law in Sweden and Finland in 1766.

Participants also discussed the relevance and significance of the law today and the future of freedom of information, in a national and global context.

There was a range of speakers on the day including Maurice Frankel and Des Wilson from the Campaign for Freedom of Information (CFOI), the new Information Commissioner, Elizabeth Denham, and Lord James Wallace of Tankerness, former member of Scottish Government, who piloted the Freedom of Information Act through the Scottish Parliament.

We have collected a number of tweets from participants at the event using #FOI250 and published them on Storify to help capture the flavour of the discussions which took place.

The collection documents the two moderated discussions and the evening panel. There is also a list of resources and reaction at the end of the collection. Click here or on the image below to view the Storify collection.

foi250-event-storify

Freedom of Information at 250 was an Article 19 event held at the Free Word Centre with the support of the Information Law and Policy Centre at the Institute of Advanced Legal Studies, and the Embassies of Sweden and Finland.

Access to information should not be an after-thought in plans for ‘transforming our justice system’

In this post, Sussex University lecturer Judith Townend argues that access to information should be at the heart of plans to reform the justice system. She summarises the key points from her submission to the Ministry of Justice in response to the consultation on the proposed reforms. The post first appeared on the Transparency Project website. 

Transforming justice - access to justiceOn 15th September 2016 the Ministry of Justice opened its consultation into “Transforming Our Justice System”. The 36 page document, accompanied by a statement by the Lord Chancellor, the Lord Chief Justice and the Senior President of Tribunals, sets out a “vision” for a radical overhaul and major financial investment in courts and tribunals in England and Wales. The plans for reform include more use of case officers for routine tasks, more decisions made “on the papers” (where a judge can consider representations without a physical hearing), more virtual hearings, and more cases resolved out of court.

The consultation document concentrated on some specific areas of reform including its “assisted digital” strategy (to help users access services), and online conviction and statutory fixed fine plans. The latter would allow for certain routine, low-level summary, non-imprisonable offences with no identifiable victim to be resolved entirely online, whereby a defendant would enter their plea to an online system. If that’s a guilty plea they would be able to view the penalty, accept the conviction and penalty, and pay their fine.

Responses were sought on online convictions and the “assisted digital” strategy by 10th November (extended after an administrative error). It is likely that many of the responses will focus on the access to justice issues and the risks of an online plea system; research by the charity Transform Justice, for example, indicates that “many unrepresented defendants do not understand whether they are guilty or innocent in legal terms – whether they have a valid defence – and certainly don’t understand the full implications of each option”.

However, there’s another major issue which is overlooked in the consultation, that of access to courts and tribunals by members of the public who are not necessarily directly involved with proceedings — this includes members of the media, NGOs and universities, but also ordinary people who wish to observe proceedings and access the information to which they are legitimately entitled.

Although the consultation document contains a pledge that the judiciary and government will “continue to ensure open justice”, access to proceedings and materials is not explored in any detail in relation to the specific reforms outlines on online convictions and “assisted digital”. It states the “principle of open justice will be upheld and the public will still be able to see and hear real-time hearings, whilst we continue to protect the privacy of the vulnerable” (p.5). This sentence points to a very important tension in complex digital environments, and one that needs overt recognition and detailed consideration when designing new access systems for online court procedures in both civil and criminal contexts.

There is mention of “transparency” in the joint statement (p.10) but only in relation to general data about proceedings (i.e. statistics) rather than with regard to access to proceedings. The Impact Assessment on Online Convictions mentions that “Listings and results would be published” (p.5, para 23) with no indication of whether this means to the open web (indefinitely?), or in a physical courtroom. If they intend to publish the full listings for all these summary only non-imprisonable offences to the open web, it is very important that the judiciary and MoJ consider the legal and societal implication of this — it is not something that has previously been done so systematically by the court.

Given that many major criminal convictions are unreported by the media owing to a lack of resource or interest, we could end up in a strange situation where there is greater access via online search for far less serious offences and this must be considered in the context of issues such as equal opportunities and potential barriers to work, as well as open justice and transparency. The MoJ, HMCTS and Judiciary should investigate a range of technological options for sharing data from courts and tribunals and should open these proposals to scrutiny through stakeholder research and official consultation.

In the annual University of Sussex Draper Lecture 2016 in London this week (8 November), Lord Justice Fulford* said that one option being considered was to provide viewing centres in public buildings, but these were early days and they were still looking for imaginative solutions. It would seem perverse, given the overall agenda of the reforms, for the courts not to consider digital access options that do not require physical travel to court.  

On behalf of the Transparency Project I have written a submission to the consultation, raising our overall concern about the lack of attention given to open justice and access to information in these initial documents. Our submission urges the Ministry of Justice and Judiciary to provide more detail on their specific plans for physical and digital access to virtual proceedings and to open these plans to further consultation. Too often, public access to courts information is an afterthought, which leads to mistakes such as the inadvertent release of sensitive and confidential data, or insufficient information and access being made available.

*Unfortunately I was unable to attend the lecture but it was reported by TP member Paul Magrath here and the Law Society Gazette here.

Judith Townend is a lecturer in media and information law at the University of Sussex and a member of the Transparency Project Core Group. She is the former Director of the Information Law and Policy Centre. 

Photo: Steph GrayCC BY-SA 2.0

Article 19 event: 250 years of freedom of information

Freedom of Information Act Sweden and Finland 1766

On 2 December 1766, the world’s first-ever freedom of information law was signed into law. It had been promulgated by the Riksdag – Parliament – of Sweden and Finland, which at the time was one country.

The 1766 Law is the oldest constitution to regulate freedom of information in the world and is thus celebrating its 250th anniversary in 2016.

It pioneered public access to state information, making what was then Sweden and Finland the first country in the world to officially instigate a Right to Information law.

The aim of this event is to commemorate, celebrate and scrutinise the adoption of this law as well as to discuss its relevance and significance today, in a national as well as in a global context.

The Article 19 event will be held at the Free Word Centre with the support of the Information Law and Policy Centre at the IALS on Thursday 8th December, 2.30pm – 8.30pm.

It is comprised of two moderated discussions and a panel discussion in the format of a conversation, and will end with a drinks and canapés reception for all participants after the panel discussion.

BOOKING

Please note: You will need to book for each event separately.
Please visit this page to book the afternoon moderated discussions.
Please visit this page to book the evening panel discussion.

AFTERNOON MODERATED DISCUSSIONS
2.30pm – 5.15pm

Session 1: Freedom of Information Act (FOI) in the UK and Europe

In the first session the current challenges as well as possibilities of the Freedom of Information Act, both in a UK and European context, will be discussed with:

Maurice Frankel, Director, and Des Wilson, Founder, of Campaign for Freedom of Information (CFOI) – the organisation that, in 1984, was founded to secure a legal right to public-held information.

Helen Darbishire Director of Access Info Europe – dedicated to promoting and protecting the right of access to information particularly in European countries and institutions.

The session will be moderated by James Michael, Chair of the Advisory Board at the Information Law and Policy Centre (IALS) and Special Adviser to the House of Lords Committee considering the Freedom of Information Bill pre-2000.

Session 2: Freedom of Information Law – The Swedish/Finnish history

In the second session the history, development and legacy of the Freedom of Information Act in Sweden and Finland, will be discussed with:

Jonas Nordin from the Royal National Library, Stockholm – a Historian and Senior Lecturer who, earlier this year, published a history of the Swedish/Finnish Freedom of Information Act.

Peter Hogg, former Head of the Scandinavian Section at the British Library and translator of the first ever translation of the TF Law into English in 2006.

Ian Giles from the Scandinavian Studies Department at the University of Edinburgh, one of the translators of the second translation into English of the 1766 Law (October 2016).

Toby Mendel, Executive Director of the Center for Law and Democracy, Halifax, Canada and author of a range of books on freedom of information, including comparative and analytical studies on the right to information and international FOI consultant.

The session will be moderated by Ben Worthy from Birkbeck College, University of London. Ben is a lecturer in politics who has authored many works on freedom of information.

EVENING PANEL DISCUSSION
6.00pm – 8.30pm

The evening panel discussion will be presented in the format of a conversation. It will be moderated by the BBC’s Nicola Cain and will include the UK’s new Information Commissioner Elizabeth Denham, who will cover the contemporary issues, challenges and opportunities presented by living with FOI laws – and what the future may hold.

Speakers

Nicola Cain, BBC Head of Legal – Freedom of Information & Contentious Data Protection who deals with FOI requests and appeals.

Elizabeth Denham, UK Information Commissioner – independent regulatory office dealing with the UK Freedom of Information law.

Lord James Wallace of Tankerness, former member of the Scottish Government who piloted the Freedom of Information Act through the Scottish Parliament.

With thanks to the Information Law and Policy Centre, the Embassy of Sweden and the Embassy of Finland.

Full Programme: Annual Workshop and Evening Lecture

Restricted and Redacted: Where now for human rights and digital information control?

The full programme for the Information Law and Policy Centre’s annual workshop and lecture on Wednesday 9th November 2016 is now available (see below).

For both events, attendance will be free of charge thanks to the support of the IALS and our sponsor, Bloomsbury’s Communications Law journal.

To register for the afternoon workshop please visit this Eventbrite page.
To register for the evening lecture please visit this Eventbrite Page.

Please note that for administrative purposes you will need to book separate tickets for the afternoon and evening events if you would like to come to both events.

PROGRAMME

10.45am: REGISTRATION AND COFFEE 

11.15am: Welcome

  • Judith Townend, University of Sussex
  • Paul Wragg, University of Leeds
  • Julian Harris, Institute of Advanced Legal Studies, University of London

11.30am-1pm: PANEL 1 – choice between A and B

Panel A: Social media, online privacy and shaming

Chair: Asma Vranaki, Queen Mary University of London

  1. David Mangan, City, University of London, Dissecting Social Media: Audience and Authorship
  2. Marion Oswald, Helen James, Emma Nottingham, University of Winchester, The not-so-secret life of five year olds: Legal and ethical issues relating to disclosure of information and the depiction of children on broadcast and social media
  3. Maria Run Bjarnadottir, Ministry of the Interior in Iceland, University of Sussex, Does the internet limit human rights protection? The case of revenge porn
  4. Tara Beattie, University of Durham, Censoring online sexuality – A non-heteronormative, feminist perspective

Panel B: Access to Information and protecting the public interest

Chair: Judith Townend, University of Sussex

  1. Ellen P. Goodman, Rutgers University, Obstacles to Using Freedom of Information Laws to Unpack Public/Private Deployments of Algorithmic Reasoning in the Public Sphere
  2. Felipe Romero-Moreno, University of Hertfordshire, ‘Notice and staydown’, the use of content identification and filtering technology posing a fundamental threat to human rights
  3. Vigjilenca Abazi, Maastricht University, Mapping Whistleblowing Protection in Europe: Information Flows in the Public Interest

1-2pm: LUNCH 

2-3.30pm: PANEL 2 – choice between A and B

Panel A: Data protection and surveillance

Chair: Nora Ni Loideain, University of Cambridge

  1. Jiahong Chen, University of Edinburgh, How the Best Laid Plans Go Awry: The (Unsolved) Issues of Applicable Law in the General Data Protection Regulation
  2. Jessica Cruzatti-Flavius, University of Massachusetts, The Human Hard Drive: Name Erasure and the Rebranding of Human Beings
  3. Wenlong Li, University of Edinburgh, Right to Data Portability (RDP)
  4. Ewan Sutherland, Wits University, Wire-tapping in the regulatory state – changing times, changing mores

Panel B: Technology, power and governance

Chair: Chris Marsden, University of Sussex

  1. Monica Horten, London School of Economics, How Internet structures create closure for freedom of expression – an exploration of human rights online in the context of structural power theory
  2. Perry Keller, King’s College, London, Bringing algorithmic governance to the smart city
  3. Marion Oswald, University of Winchester and Jamie Grace, Sheffield Hallam University, Intelligence, policing and the use of algorithmic analysis – initial conclusions from a survey of UK police forces using freedom of information requests as a research methodology
  4. Allison Holmes, Kent University, Private Actor or Public Authority? How the Status of Communications Service Providers affects Human Rights

3.30-5pm: PANEL 3 – choice between A and B

Panel A: Intermediary Liability

Chair: Christina Angelopoulos, University of Cambridge

  1. Judit Bayer, Miskolc University, Freedom and Diversity on the Internet: Liability of Intermediaries for Third Party Content
  2. Mélanie Dulong de Rosnay, Félix Tréguer, CNRS-Sorbonne Institute for Communication Sciences and Federica Giovanella, University of Trento, Intermediary Liability and Community Wireless Networks Design Shaping
  3. David Rolph, University of Sydney, Liability of Search Engines for Publication of Defamatory Matter: An Australian Perspective

Panel B: Privacy and anonymity online

Chair: Paul Wragg, University of Leeds

  1. Gavin Phillipson, University of Durham, Threesome injuncted: has the Supreme Court turned the tide against the media in online privacy cases?
  2. Fiona Brimblecombe, University of Durham, European Privacy Law
  3. James Griffin, University of Exeter and Annika Jones, University of Durham, The future of privacy in a world of 3D printing

5-6pm: TEA BREAK / STRETCH YOUR LEGS

6-8pm: EVENING LECTURE AND DRINKS

Lecture Title: Heads and shoulders, knees and toes (and eyes and ears and mouth and nose…): The impact of the General Data Protection Regulation on use of biometrics.

Biometrics are touted as one of the next big things in the connected world. Specific reference to biometrics and genetic data has been included for the first time in the General Data Protection Regulation. How does this affect existing provisions? Will the impact of the Regulation be to encourage or to restrict the development of biometric technology?

  • Speaker: Rosemary Jay, Senior Consultant Attorney at Hunton & Williams and author of Sweet & Maxwell’s Data Protection Law & Practice.
  • Chair: Professor Lorna Woods, University of Essex
  • Respondents: Professor Andrea Matwyshyn, Northeastern University and Mr James Michael, IALS

Whistleblowers and journalists in the digital age

Snowden

Dr Aljosha Karim Schapals, research assistant at the Information Law and Policy Centre, reports on a research workshop hosted by the University of Cardiff on Digital Citizenship and the ‘Surveillance Society’.

A workshop led by researchers at the Cardiff School of Journalism, Media and Cultural Studies (JOMEC) on 27th June in London shared the findings of an 18 month ESRC funded research project examining the relationships between the state, the media and citizens in the wake of the Snowden revelations of 2013.

It was the concluding event of a number of conferences, seminars and workshops organised by the five principal researchers: Dr Arne Hintz (Cardiff), Dr Lina Dencik (Cardiff), Prof Karin Wahl-Jorgensen (Cardiff), Prof Ian Brown (Oxford) and Dr Michael Rogers (TU Delft).

Broadly speaking, the Digital Citizenship and the ‘Surveillance Society’ (DCSS) project has investigated the nature, opportunities and challenges of digital citizenship in light of US and UK governmental surveillance as revealed by whistleblower Edward Snowden.

Touching on more general themes such as freedom of expression, data privacy and civic transparency, the project aligns with the research activities of the Information Law and Policy Centre, which include developing work on journalism and whistleblower protection, and discussions and analysis of the Investigatory Powers Bill. Continue reading

David Goldberg: Dronalism in the Year of the Drone

Dr David Goldberg is a member of the Advisory Board of the Information Law and Policy Centre. He has recently authored the following: [1] ”Journalism, drones, and law” in A. Koltay (ed), Comparative Perspectives on the Fundamental Freedom of Expression (Wolters Kluwer 2015); [2] ”Droning on About Journalism: Remotely Piloted Aircraft and Newsgathering” in A. Završnik (ed), Drones and Unmanned Aerial Systems (Springer 2015); [3] “Dronalism: Journalism, Remotely Piloted Aircraft, Law and Regulation” in Florida International University Law Review, Vol 10 (2); and [4]Regulators Should let ‘Dronalism’ Take Off” in Media Asia December 2015. In 2013, he co-authored Remotely Piloted Aircraft Systems and Journalism (Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism). In this guest post, he argues in favour of the use of drones in journalism.

Hands up who has heard of John Silva? Not many, I bet! Silva was chief engineer for Los Angeles station KTLA-TV. In 1958, he outfitted a helicopter with a TV camera and changed television news coverage forever. Fast forward 50+ years and a drone/remotely piloted aircraft (the issue of what to call the gizmos is so yesterday) is simply an analogous newer bit of kit in a (photo) journalist’s toolbox.

In my opinion, drones both can and should be allowed to be used inter alia for the purposes of newsgathering, journalism and media production: should because basically they assist newsgathering. In itself, the drone is nothing, it’s just a flying donkey. It’s what you strap on to it, e.g., a camera or data sensor, that makes a drone useful in the context of journalism/newsgathering (aka “dronalism”). As such, its deployment is protected under Article 10 ECHR (the only drone application to engage a human right?), because its use, just like a camera, for street photography facilitates newsgathering. Overly precious concerns about a subject’s identity disclosure using a device which might be difficult to spot would do well to defer to the 2015 decision of the European Court of Human Rights in Haldimann and Others v Switzerland, which found for journalists using covert filming techniques.

More generally, it has become something of a cliché to say that 2016 is the “year of the drone”. But, less reported (actually, not at all?) than yet-another-scare-story (is the industry even approached for a quote in those cases?) is the ongoing government-initiated “Public Dialogue on the use and deployment of drones in the UK”. In due course, the conclusions will be posted here (the full report is likely to be published in June). For now, one industry insider reports back from a recent cross-government working group on remotely piloted aircraft meeting:

“‘The public’s overwhelming feeling is they are excited by drone technology, they are not concerned by state, military or commercial use as ‘they know what they are doing’”.

The category of concern is the recreational/consumer user and not even the hobbyist who is likely to be a member of a group or club with a sense and culture of professionalism and rule-following.

To return, finally, to dronalism, here’s a thought: it doesn’t fit into any of the aforementioned categories! As the amicus curiae brief by News Media in the US National Transportation Safety Board Huerta v Pirker litigation states, “the publication of news is not a ‘commercial’ activity comparable to the sale of goods and services”. That activity and the activities pursuant to it are protected – that conclusion should hold whether with regard to US constitutional concerns or the European fundamental rights regime.

Upcoming seminar, 16 March: Openness in Britain 2016 – Where Are We Now?

  • Date/time: Wednesday 16 March, 18.00-19.30 (registration from 17.45)
  • Place: Institute of Advanced Legal Studies, 17 Russell Square, London
  • Book your free place at this link

The UK’s coalition government has said it is committed to making Britain the most open administration in the world, pushing a series of open data innovations through the Open Government Partnership (OGP). On the other hand, there has been a rumble of discontent with the Freedom of Information regime, even before Tony Blair despaired that he ever introduced it. In parallel, the devolved administrations have begun to push their own FOI and open data agendas. These tensions have gathered pace since 2015 with judicial rulings, the formation of an Independent Commission on FOI and a powerful counter reaction from civil society and the media. This seminar brings together an expert panel to explore the advances, tensions and controversy and answer the question ‘where are we now with openness’?

Panel (to be confirmed): Maurice Frankel, Campaign for Freedom of Information; Ben Worthy, Birkbeck Department of Politics; Heather Brooke, investigative journalist and professor of journalism, City University London.

Co-conveners:

About this seminar series:The Openness and…” Seminar Series is a programme of seminars that explores the concept of openness – a defining feature of modern political discourse – in its various applications and contexts. It looks at openness from civil, legal, historical and technical perspectives, as well as from local and international perspectives. Efforts towards openness, such as mandatory reporting, freedom of information, whistleblowing, open data, information activism, public accounting etc. are all concerned with providing access to information. The series brings together specialists in diverse fields concerned with information collection, management, use, release and re-use to discuss the methods, politics and repercussions of access to information. The seminars are open to all and the conveners welcome input from the public as well as academics and practitioners. Contact details for the Information Law and Policy Centre at this link.

Steve Goodrich: FOI is under attack when it should be strengthened

stevegoodrichIn this guest post, Transparency International UK’s Steve Goodrich considers UK citizens’ right to access information, arguing that public money should be put towards examining how the Freedom of Information regime can be improved, not weakened

The right to access information held by the state, public officers and providers of state services is an essential part of a functioning democracy. It provides citizen-led checks and balances on concentrations of power, without which corruption would be allowed to thrive; allows citizens to make informed judgements about the efficacy of governments and elected representatives; and helps hold institutions and officials to account for their actions. It is, therefore, perplexing why the UK Government – with its welcome and newfound interest in tackling corruption – appears intent on watering down the Freedom of Information Act.

In July this year, Lord Hodges announced that the UK Government was establishing an ‘independent Commission’ to review whether the Act provided ‘safe space’ for Ministers and civil servants to develop and discuss policy. This might sound very well and reasonable – why shouldn’t a law be reviewed after it’s been in operation for a decade – however, the announcement missed out some important pieces of detail.

Firstly, there has already been post-legislative scrutiny of the Act. The Justice Select Committee did a thorough job back in 2012, which involved taking 140 pieces of written evidence and oral evidence from 37 witnesses during 7 evidence sessions. After talking to a range of individuals and organisations, the Committee concluded that there are sufficient protections for deliberation within public bodies. The Information Commissioner and Information Tribunal are both mindful of the need to ensure this ‘safe space’ exists – which is already provided for in the Act – and Cabinet minutes are not routinely outed. Considering this, it’s slightly baffling why the government wants this looking at again, and so soon after the last review.

Secondly, one of the reasons cited for re-examining the Act is the Supreme Court’s recent decision in the case of the Prince Charles ‘spider memos’. After the Upper Tribunal had ordered the government to disclose these documents the Attorney General, Dominic Grieve, tried to issue the Ministerial veto – something intended for rare and limited circumstances. However, on appeal the Supreme Court ruled that the veto could not apply because it was never intended to be an executive override for a judgment of the judiciary. As the Supreme Court’s judgment notes, it is a long-standing principle of the rule of law that the executive should only be allowed to do this in very specific circumstances where the power to do so is clear and explicit. This is not the case within the FOI Act.

Essentially, the review seems to be partly inspired by sour grapes. The government lost in a disagreement with the courts and its solution is to make the case for re-writing the law so it can ignore them in the future when it suits them. The public interest is noticeably absent from its motivations.

Thirdly, the composition and conduct of the Commission has raised some eyebrows. Members include Jack Straw, who has publicly criticised the Act, and Michael Howard whose expenses for gardening services were revealed through FOI. There are no major advocates of the Act on the panel.

The Commission has also adopted some opaque practices during the initial stages of its inquiry, including providing anonymous briefings to members of the press and considering anonymising evidence. Until civil society expressed concerns about the Commission in September, it wasn’t even planning to take external evidence and had the suspiciously ambitious deadline of November 2015 to report to government. Since then, it has opened itself up to submissions and its deadline for reporting appears to have disappeared. However, the damage has already been done – Transparency International UK has no confidence in the impartiality and independence of the Commission.

The saddest thing about this whole episode is that it’s been a missed opportunity. If public money is going to be spent on reviewing the Act it should be put towards examining how it can be improved, not weakened. For example, there are growing transparency gaps in our public institutions, with the private sector providing an increasing amount of goods and services. Although there are some circumstances where these companies can be subject to information requests, these are limited. This is why the Act should be extended to the private sector where they are providing public services.

Recently, Labour has announced that it intends to set-up its own Commission on FOI that will look at the Act as a whole, including how it can be strengthened. This is a welcome development. However, as with the government’s Commission, its members and their actions must gain the confidence of civil society and government if its findings are ever to be realised.

Steve Goodrich is  Transparency International UK’s (TI-UK) Senior Research Officer. He is responsible for leading on TI-UK’s research into lobbying open data and state accountability. He spoke at ‘Freedom of Information: Extending Transparency to the Private Sector‘ on 28 September 2015, an event co-organised by the Bingham Centre for the Rule of Law and the IALS Information Law and Policy Centre.

  • For other resources on FOI and the private sector please follow this link
  • Our blog posts give the view of the author, and do not represent the position of the Information Law and Policy Centre or the Institute of Advanced Legal Studies.