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Freedom of information (FoI) and open government, and data protection

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'Freedom of information' can be crucial when dealing with some of the problems covered by this website - such as unlicensed 'charitable' collections (when you need information from the regulators - eg councils).  Hence we've devoted a page to it.

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The closely-related issue of 'data protection' is less relevant, so we've only dealt with it briefly.

Freedom of information (FoI) and open government

FoI

When dealing with government (especially regulators) you'll often want to get information from them.  Then you'll sometimes encounter the issue of confidentiality.  They may say they aren't allowed to supply you with the information.

In some cases this will be correct - for example personal information (ie relating to living individuals) covered by the Data Protection Act 1998 (details below).

However, on occasions officials get it wrong - they may withhold information even though you're entitled to have it.  Common reasons for this :

Freedom of Information Act 2000 - contents page
Freedom of Information Act 2000
contents page
Crown copyright HMSO

History - Since the 1960s there have been concerted campaigns in Europe (especially Scandinavia) and America to make government information more available to the public, partly in order to increase transparency and accountability.  Potentially this results in better quality services.  The issue has become known as "freedom of information" (FoI) and "open government".

Britain now has a Freedom of Information Act (dated 2000).  initially only some of the Act's provisions applied.  However, from 1 January 2005 all the Act is in force.

Under this new regime, all government-held information is considered to be available to the public (ie in the public domain) unless there's a valid reason for withholding it.  The legislation lists these reasons.  They include threat to national security, commercial confidentiality and protection of personal data.  See the website of the Ministry of Justice for official guidance on FoI/open government.

If you have problems obtaining information, ask to speak to the section dealing with freedom of information/open government in the organisation.  They may be able to get the information released.  If not, they're required to give you a full explanation (in writing) of why the information can't be released.  Also you can appeal against the decision.  Journalists sometimes have to resort to quoting FoI rules in order to get information from government (eg MPs' expenses).

With a few exceptions, information requests under the FoI Act are handled free-of-charge.

See also the Problems with regulators page.

Freedom of information and non-government organisations

Although the Freedom of Information Act 2000 only applies to government information, non-government organisations are subject to various pieces of legislation which require them to disclose certain information.  Examples :

Data Protection (DP)

DP

The law on this is contained in the Data Protection Act 1998.  The legislation sets rules for processing "personal" information - in other words it only concerns data about identifiable living individuals.

The government's Information Commissioner is responsible for registering data users, providing compliance with and enforcing the provisions of the Acts.

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Note:  Don't confuse 'data protection' with intellectual property (IP) rights such as © copyright, trade marks, registered designs and patents.  These rights don't stop you seeing information, but generally they do stop you using it unless you have the permission of the owner - eg in the case of copyright, publishing it.  See the Copyright page - including the section on HMSO.

The relationships between freedom of information and data protection

Similarities

Freedom of information and data protection are closely related.  In fact in many organisations these two issues are dealt with by the same team.  At first glance they may appear to be opposites - the two sides of the same coin :

Indeed, on occasions the two can conflict with each other.  Well-known examples include :

Differences

However, there are crucial differences between freedom of information and data protection, especially regarding the type of information, as follows :

So, there's no contradiction if you argue simultaneously for both freedom of information and data protection - because the two deal with different types of information.

In the UK, the sectors covered by FoI and data protection laws are different :

Ambiguities

In relation to FoI, it can be unclear whether an organisation is classified as 'government' or not - eg with QUANGOs, or public services sub-contracted by government to private or third-sector organisations.

WhatDoTheyKnow.com website

WhatDoTheyKnow.com logo (our thanks to WhatDoTheyKnow.com)

www.WhatDoTheyKnow.com  is an intriguing and innovative participatory website, with the slogan: "Make and explore Freedom of Information requests".

It was set up by www.mysociety.org  , which is a project of UK Citizens Online democracy (UKCOD)  - a registered charity.

xStatistics:As at October 2009 :

Freedom of information :
Related pages and Useful links