FOI and Communications Data

Last week, the UK Gov announced an Independent Commission on Freedom of Information (written statement) to consider:

  • whether there is an appropriate public interest balance between transparency, accountability and the need for sensitive information to have robust protection
  • whether the operation of the Act adequately recognises the need for a ‘safe space’ for policy development and implementation and frank advice
  • the balance between the need to maintain public access to information, the burden of the Act on public authorities and whether change is needed to moderate that while maintaining public access to information

To the, erm, cynical amongst us, this could be interpreted as the first step of a government trying to make it harder access public information about decision making processes (that is, a step to reduce transparency), though it would be interesting if the commission reported that making more information available proactively available as published public documents, open data and so was an effective route to reducing the burden of FOIA on local authorities.

One thing I’ve been meaning to do for a long time is have a proper look at WhatDoTheyKnow, the MySociety site that mediates FOI requests in a public forum, as well as published FOI disclosure logs, to see what the most popular requests are by sector to see whether FOI requests can be used to identify datasets and other sources of information that are commonly requested and, by extension, should perhaps be made available proactively (for early fumblings, see FOI Signals on Useful Open Data? or The FOI Route to Real (Fake) Open Data via WhatDoTheyKnow, for example).

(Related, I spotted this the other day on the Sunlight Foundation blog: Pilot program will publicize all FOIA responses at select federal agencies: Currently, federal agencies are only required to publicly share released records that are requested three or more times. The new policy, known as “release to one, release to all,” removes this threshold for some agencies and instead requires that any records released to even one requester also be posted publicly online. I’d go further – if the same requests are made repeatedly (eg information about business rates seems to be one such example) the information should be published proactively.)

In a commentary on the FOI Commission, David Higgerson writes (Freedom of Information Faces Its Biggest THreat Yet – Here’s Why):

The government argues it wants to be the most transparent in the world. Noble aim, but the commission proves it’s probably just words. If it really wished to be the most transparent in the world, it would tell civil servants and politicians that their advice, memos, reports, minutes or whatever will most likely be published if someone asks for them – but that names and any references to who they are will be redacted. Then the public could see what those working within Government were thinking, and how decisions were made.

That is, the content should be made available, but the metadata should be redacted. This immediately put me in mind of the Communications Data Bill, which is perhaps likely to resurface anytime soon, that wants to collect communications metadata (who spoke to whom) but doesn’t directly let folk get to peak at the content. (See also: From Communications Data to #midata – with a Mobile Phone Data Example. In passing, I also note that the cavalier attitude of previous governments to passing hasty, ill-thought out legislation in the communications data area at least is hitting home. It seems that the Data Retention and Investigatory Powers Act (DRIPA) 2014 is “inconsistent with European Union law”. Oops…)

Higgerson also writes:

Politicians aren’t stupid. Neither are civil servants. They do, however, often tend to be out of touch. The argument that ‘open data’ makes a government transparent is utter bobbins. Open data helps people to see the data being used to inform decisions, and see the impact of previous decisions. It does not give context, reasons or motives. Open data, in this context, is being used as a way of watering down the public’s right to know.

+1 on that… Transparency comes more from the ability to keep tabs on the decision making process, not just the data. (Some related discussion on that point here: A Quick Look Around the Open Data Landscape.)

Author: Tony Hirst

I'm a Senior Lecturer at The Open University, with an interest in #opendata policy and practice, as well as general web tinkering...

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