Tag Archives: freedom of information

Ten years of freedom of information – what does the future hold?

Image c/o v1ctory_1s_m1ne on Flickr.

To celebrate 10 years of the Freedom of Information Act, Bilal Ghafoor (FOI Kid) reflects on its impact and ponders what the future holds for this important Act of parliament.

If you go onto the website or read the official publications of any government department, local council, NHS organisation, the one thing that almost all of the information will have in common is that it has been volunteered. And while the communications and press teams in many organisations do a great job, ultimately they are a prism through which an organisation shines out what light it wishes to. Most press releases or official statements do not contain raw data. Most organisations do not publish email trails that they are even slightly uncomfortable about.

The Freedom of Information Act 2000 came into force on 1 January 2005 and it has, in the words of the Justice Select Committee, which undertook a post legislative review of the Act, been “a significant enhancement of our democracy.”[1] However, it went on to note that “we are not surprised that the unrealistic secondary expectation that the Act would increase public confidence in Government and Parliament has not been met.”[2] This was, after all, while the fire of the MPs’ expenses scandal was still smouldering.

I continue to be struck by an observation I heard when I attended a Request Initiative event on FOI that all the complaints about the burden of FOI are irrelevant – public authorities hire FOI officers and spend money not on releasing information but on withholding it. Aside from personal data, which must be guarded, there is more truth to this idea than I would like.

I remember when I worked in FOI in a central government department, a Labour Secretary of State visited us. The first thing he did was apologise to us for bringing in the Act. It was not just Tony Blair who later thought it foolish. We in the FOI team (it seemed to be the natural home of a couple of a Marxists who had somehow joined the civil service), thought it to be utterly bizarre. How was it not a good thing (and not just because it kept us in employment)?

It is our tax, it is our society, these institutions are ours, the work they do belongs to us. It almost seems like a naïve assertion, but perhaps that is because it is so true. If we live in a democracy.

But there are dangers. The FOI Act, which was heroically worked on by the Campaign for Freedom of Information (which just celebrated its 30th birthday party – 20 years older than the legislation itself), came into force over a long period of time and the dangers are similarly slow but sure.

The Government’s response to the post legislative review[3] highlighted that it wanted allow organisations to refuse multiple requests from the same person or organisation. At first glance, this might be ok – why should one person be allowed to harass an organisation with lots of requests? But what about a local newspaper wanting to make lots of requests to local organisations? How is a local newspaper  supposed to survive on being able to make only a small number of requests in any one year to the local council?

There is a suggestion that ‘thinking time’ be included in cost limits for responding to a FOI. This means that any request of a new kind or for new types of information or invoking a new exemption will start to breach the cost limits and be refused. This encourages organisations to hire non-specialists. Or to copy in 15 members of staff into emails about FOI requests and to count thinking time 15 times over.

The chronic under-funding of the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) is another terrible problem. While the ICO’s basic stance seems to be to advocate the release of information and accessibility for all, in the latest triennial review of the ICO, its own submission to the Ministry of Justice[4] proposed a charge for requestors wanting to use its services. This would be appalling. But I can see that the ICO is constantly frustrated by its tiny grant in aid (the organisation runs its entire FOI operation for less than many central government department’s communications and spin budgets) and that this proposal is a sign of its desperation.

Application of the Act has become complicated – most ICO decision notices and Tribunal judgments add nuances onto how we should apply exemptions. I love the complication, but I am also very drawn to an idea that was kicked around by others on Twitter that perhaps all of the exemptions should be discarded and everything become subject to a plain public interest test. This would include cost limits – if you ask for a lot of information, if it is in the public interest to provide it, it should be provided. Thanks to relatively recent developments in understanding of ‘vexatious requests’), where a request would be significantly disruptive, the Act allows for a refusal.

The FOI Act is not perfect. But I am still of the generation that compares it to Yes Prime Minister days of secrecy and am thankful to the Campaign for Freedom of Information and other advocates that we can now ask the people who formerly felt like our masters for our own information.

[1] Post legislative scrutiny of the Freedom of Information Act 2000 – Justice Committee Para 241, http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201213/cmselect/cmjust/96/9602.htm.

[2] ibid

[3] http://www.justice.gov.uk/downloads/publications/policy/moj/gov-resp-justice-comm-foi-act.pdf

[4] https://ico.org.uk/about-the-ico/news-and-events/news-and-blogs/2014/11/ico-response-to-the-ministry-of-justice-s-announcement-of-their-triennial-review-of-the-information-commissioner-s-office/

The cost of subscription publishing

The following article was submitted by Stuart Lawson.

The high cost of subscription journals has been discussed endlessly among librarians and those advocating for open access. While it is common knowledge that the prices paid by libraries are higher than most can really afford, there is still surprisingly little data in the public domain about what the exact costs are. Partly this is just down to the fact that libraries haven’t traditionally published detailed breakdowns of their acquisitions expenditure, so there is no cultural norm of doing so.

Partly it is due to the contracts that libraries sign with publishers to gain access to their journals. Some of these contracts contain non-disclosure agreements which prevent librarians from publicly disclosing the prices or pricing calculations. However, while this practice does exist, it is less widespread than is sometimes assumed. In the UK the only publisher whose contract includes a non-disclosure agreement which it claims prevents signatories from releasing some data even when subject to freedom of information (FOI) requests is Elsevier. The legal position of Elsevier’s non-disclosure clause has not been tested in court and if there are any brave librarians out there who wish to pursue that route, it could be worth getting a legal opinion about whether it can be done.

Subscription costs for all other publishers can be gained by any member of the public by sending FOI requests to UK universities, either as an individual or through the website whatdotheyknow.com. So that’s what we’ve done. The subscription costs paid by around 100 institutions to six major publishers are now openly available on figshare. We will be sending carefully-worded FOI requests separately for Elsevier data to obtain as much as is legally possible at the moment.

Transparency in subscription data is particularly important right now because we are seeing increased transparency in the price of APCs, and if this is seen without the context of the costs of subscriptions it could be used to claim that open access is needlessly expensive (thanks to Ernesto Priego for pointing this out).

Huge thanks to Ben Meghreblian for doing most of the manual labour or sending out all the FOI requests and collating the responses. Not every UK higher education institution is included in this dataset, particularly some of those institutions which have merged in the last few years, but the majority are. The notable exception is the majority of the research-intensive Russell Group universities, which were excluded because I know that someone else sent similar requests earlier this year but have not published the results yet. Even though those Russell Group universities would tend to have much higher subscription expenditure, I think it is important to see how bearing the burden of the costs of academic publishing is not limited to the more wealthy institutions.

A few caveats about the data so far:

  • The requests asked for data in calendar years, and some institutions responded with data in academic financial years. In those cases the data has been put in the column for the latter year. For example, if a figure is given for 2012/13, it is placed in the 2013 column. The money may actually have been transferred during 2012, but it will be for subscriptions for 2013.
  • Some institutions have not included expenditure through subscription agents or other intermediaries, including big deals. Others have included these costs. This makes directly comparing institutions’ expenditure more tricky.
    We are still waiting for responses from some institutions. These figures will be added to the spreadsheet as they become available.

For further details of individual requests please follow the links given in the tabs in the spreadsheet.

UPDATE: Further data has been added to the dataset, which now includes expenditure on  Elsevier journals for some universities.

Should UK universities block access to parts of the web?

The following post was submitted by Daniel Payne.

Image c/o Gerardofegan on Flickr.

Either a subset of the internet – or no internet – is ever accessible to any individual. We are never using the Internet, if that even exists. This is due to a variety of positive and negative mechanisms which include the state, the law, the self, whether you actually have internet access at all, internet service providers, friends, teachers, financial situation, cultural reasons, and your mum.

It might come as a surprise to learn that universities and other higher education institutions throughout the UK choose to block categories of the internet beyond what is required of them by law, from sex and abortion, to naturism, online greeting cards, and marijuana. This is often referred to as “content-filtering” by the companies who perform the blocking, since this sounds less bad.

As information professionals working in the libraries of these institutions, should we care that we are working in an environment which automatically excludes whole categories of the internet? Why does a university pay money to do this, and who decides which categories to block and why?

There are of course parts of the internet which are blocked before the university steps in. The Internet Watch Foundation (IWF) maintains a constantly changing list called the Child Abuse Image Content list (CAIC). Companies which give us access to the internet subscribe to this list and block these parts of web. There are also websites blocked by order of a court. These are usually file sharing sites where major infringement of intellectual property occurs. Try accessing: http://www.thepiratebay.se.

In addition to that which is legally required, many universities license third-party content filtering software such as BrightCloud, Websense, Smoothwall, Bloxx, and Fortiguard [1]. In response to a request for a webpage, the software will either allow or block access depending on which categories the university has selected (and as is the case in some universities, the profile of the individual requesting it).

So what categories are universities choosing to block? Under the Freedom of Information Act, I contacted universities to find out whether any blocking on  their networks occurred, and if so, what categories they blocked. Where universities claimed an exemption to disclose a list of URLs due to perceived security implications, subsequent requests were made to ascertain the “categories” by which websites were blocked (i.e. pornography).

Here is the good news: of the 119 higher education institutions I received a response from, 63% confirmed they did not carry out internet blocking [2]. Indeed, some institutions such as Imperial College, pointed out that blocking parts of the internet would be against the principles of academic freedom.

Here is (some) of the bad news. A  full list of responses is available on figshare [3]:

  • 10% refused to confirm or deny that they did or didn’t block parts of the internet.
  • Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance blocks the category “abortion” for junior users.
  • In addition to “adult”, Queen’s University Belfast also blocks “naturism”.
  • University of Aberdeen and Nottingham Trent University block “marijuana”.
  • There are a whole host of vague categories such as “questionable”, “tasteless”, “extreme politics”, “violence”, “unethical”, and “intolerance”.

Universities who carry out the category-based blocking described above are keen to point out that they have mechanisms in place where an individual can request that a block is lifted. However, this can often involve seeking permission from the head of department, or submitting an evidence form which justifies your need to access that material;  processes which will never be immediate and could be humiliating. Should an adult have to get permission to access porn? Are the number of adult individuals in UK universities getting off on porn on library computers in full view of everyone else endemic enough to warrant this?  What about a 15 year old looking up abortion?

The 10% which refused to provide any information at all generally did so by claiming an exemption under section 31(1)(a) of the Act, which permits public bodies to withhold information in the interests of the prevention and detection of crime. My only comment on this would be how surprising it is that 63% of universities didn’t think this.

Universities and these content-filtering companies cannot or will not release very detailed information on these categories, since doing so would provide  information for the individuals or organisations behind those URLs to attempt to circumvent their designated classification. We therefore don’t really know much about how companies decide which webpages are “unethical”, or “questionable”.

Universities and their libraries are about creating, disseminating, questioning, and archiving information. The biggest possible subset of the Internet out there in the wild should not be reduced any further by universities according to an arbitrary, “undesirable” set of categories, but offered alongside digital literacy skills which empower students to judge information for themselves, not make judgements on there behalf.

 

[1] Some universities freely volunteered the name of their content filtering software. Some, when requested, disclosed this information. Others specifically refused due to “commercial” interest reasons. The list of content-filtering companies here have all been mentioned by at least one university.

[2] Where a university responded by stating that it only blocked malware/spam sites, this was counted as a “no blocking” response.

[3]Payne, Daniel (2014): Categories of websites blocked by UK universities. figshare.
http://dx.doi.org/10.6084/m9.figshare.1106875 Retrieved 17:12, Jul 23, 2014 (GMT)

 

This post represents the opinions and thoughts of the author alone. Any information obtained is believed to be accurate. If you believe there are errors, please get in touch.

Public Functions, Private Companies, and Freedom of Information

Should private companies and charities delivering public services be subject to FOI? (Image c/o danbrady on Flickr.)

The following article was sent in by Erin Ferguson, a qualified librarian and doctoral researcher at the University of Strathclyde Law School. Erin tweets as @fergusonerin.

The recent privatisation of the Royal Mail and scandals involving companies like G4S and Serco have highlighted the ongoing concern over the transfer of public services to the private sector. Privatisation, in this instance defined to include both the sell-off of public assets and the contracting out of public services, has long been a controversial issue. Critics point out that privatisation often fails to meet its objectives, such as improving the quality or reducing the cost of public services. Additionally, there is concern that the delivery of public services is becoming less transparent as private companies are not responsible for responding to requests for information under the Freedom of Information or Freedom of Information (Scotland) Acts.  This post examines these concerns, as well as some of the recent proposals that have been put forward to extend FOI responsibilities.

Both the FOIA and FOISA confer on the public the general right to make requests for information from public bodies, which are listed in Schedule 1 of the Act. The list does not include private companies or charities that are now frequently responsible for the delivery of public serves, and both the Scottish and UK Information Commissioners have expressed concern over the potential for services to become less transparent and accountable. A recent survey by We Own It revealed that the public shares these views, with 88% of respondents indicating that they believe private companies delivering public services should be held to the same transparency requirements as the public sector. This concern is not only about the public’s ability to track the public pound. With 1 in 10 prisons no longer covered by the FOIA, there is concern that reduced transparency will make it difficult to scrutinise the performance of core functions of the state.

The continuing calls to protect transparency have spurred politicians into action. In 2012 Shadow Justice Secretary Sadiq Khan announced Labour’s pledge to extend the FOIA to private contractors if successful in the next election. Labour MP Graeme Morris introduced the Freedom of Information (Private Healthcare Companies) Bill in October 2013. The Public Services (Ownership and User Involvement) Bill, sponsored by Green MP Caroline Lucas, had its first reading in Parliament in January 2014. Among the latter private members’ bill’s aims was to make the contracting process more transparent and to extend FOI responsibilities to private contractors. Earlier this month the House of Commons Committee on Public Accounts published a report, in which it was acknowledged that greater transparency in contracting is needed and recommended that extension of the FOI regime be considered.

Last week, Justice Minister Simon Hughes confirmed plans for upcoming consultations on the FOIA. He announced the intended publication of a revised Code of Practice aimed at introducing FOI requirements into the contracts of private companies performing public functions. However, the coalition government has stopped short of actually extended the FOIA to private companies, a move that has been criticised by the Campaign for Freedom of Information. They argue that contractual disclosure provisions defeat the purpose of the FOIA, which was to provide a statutory right of access to information. Indeed, the plans seem reminiscent of the Code of Practice on Access to Government Information, which was introduced by the Conservative government in 1994 as an alternative to FOI and was subsequently criticised for lacking ‘teeth.’ Whilst the details of the revised Code are still unclear, it is clear that the consultation process will need to consider how to ensure that this is not another missed opportunity to preserve transparency.