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Why is the UK’s review of the Freedom of Information Act a cause for concern?

Web Foundation · July 21, 2015

On Friday, the UK Government announced a new commission to review the Freedom of Information Act. The announcement cited the UK’s first place ranking in our Open Data Barometer to justify the commission’s mandate to review, and allegedly limit, the Freedom of Information Act.

Conducting a policy review might seem reasonable on the surface, but the announcement concerns us for a number of reasons:

1. The announcement confuses Open Data with Open Government, misleading the public about what the UK’s Open Data Barometer ranking really means

Open Government is normally agreed to consist of three main pillars: transparency, participation and collaboration. The GovLab has a good explainer on the definitions in more detail.

Open Data (in the case of governments referred to as Open Government Data (OGD) specifically) is commonly accepted to follow the open definition: open data is data which “anyone can freely access, use, modify, and share for any purpose.”

By citing the UK’s ranking in the Open Data Barometer as proof that the UK has the world’s most transparent government, the UK Government is misleading the public by blurring the distinction between the two and neglecting to acknowledge the challenges that remain to becoming even more transparent.

Our Open Data Barometer primarily measures indicators on how Governments publish data that is accessible, reusable and can be distributed for free. This includes open data initiatives but also considers the legal infrastructure a country has in place to allow citizens to exercise the right to use open data and hold the government to account for what it reveals. This includes whether Freedom of Information laws are in place.

The Open Data Barometer is a composite of many factors, but it is not intended to be a comprehensive measure of Open Government more broadly – an important distinction.


2. It is difficult to have effective use of Open Data without protecting the right to information

As The Independent’s front page story shows, the UK’s Freedom of Information Act has been a crucial tool for holding the UK Government to account and examining data further. In this way, Open Data and the right to information are linked. This makes it all the more important for the UK Government to uphold its Freedom of Information Act, if it is to reap the full benefits for its Open Data initiatives.

Read more on the links between the right to information and Open Data from our Open Data Research Lead Savita Bailur.


3. The composition of the commission panel has been accused of bias against keeping the Freedom of Information Act in its current form

Media reports have cited campaigners’ criticism of the panel members: two are former Home Secretaries and one is a former civil servant. The Campaign for Freedom of Information has noted that the panel does not have a single transparency advocate.

Head of the group, Maurice Frankel said: “Jack Straw has already made his views [clear] on all the issues – he’s in favour of restricting the act to make it impossible to obtain policy advice or internal discussions, he’s in favour of introducing charges for information and making it harder for people to obtain information.”

It is also telling that the announcement came as a surprise shortly after a FOI request revealed that British armed forces were participating in Syrian airstrikes contrary to the Parliament vote against such action.


4. The prospect of restricting citizens’ right to information following the commission’s review sends the wrong signal to developing and young democracies

Last week, our Africa Regional Coordinator Nnenna Nwakanma attended the UN Financing for Development Conference in Addis Ababa, where many governments, civil society organisations and foundations all agreed to the need for open data for transparency in aid and development. Transparency around government budgets and tax revenues was a particular hot button issue.

Upon reading the UK Government’s announcement, Nnenna said:

“Human Rights issues are very fundamental and waking up one morning to find that authorities have gone into reverse on an Act as crucial as Freedom of Information, in a key democracy like the UK, is sending the wrong message to countries of the global South, who are not only having a difficult democratic growth, but are also grappling with the respect of fundamental human rights.

With the UK’s first place ranking in our Open Data Barometer comes a responsibility. If the UK backtracks on its own Freedom of Information laws, what kind of example is that for the developing world? We need strong leadership, not a willingness to shirk responsibility.”

In our statement, we call on the UK Government to uphold the Freedom of Information Act, and to ensure a transparency expert is appointed to the commission panel to ensure the review is balanced.

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