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FOI USA - 40 today

Martin Rosenbaum | 01:08 UK time, Tuesday, 4 July 2006

Today is the 40th anniversary of the introduction of freedom of information in the United States.

Some interesting research just published tackles the question of who makes most use of FOI in the US. The answer: in this latest survey over 60 per cent of FOI requests came from businesses pursuing their commercial interests. (The media accounted for 6 per cent of requests).

This would seem to be in stark contrast with the position here. According to Richard Thomas, the Information Commissioner, the evidence suggests that the largest category of users is ordinary members of the public. And the Scottish Information Commissioner Kevin Dunion also says that most of his complaints come from ordinary individuals.

(I don't know whether government ministers count as ordinary folk).

There are doubtless several factors behind this comparison, one of which may be that the US survey covered FOI at a federal level, while in the UK we are also talking about requests at the local as well as national level.

Nevertheless the discrepancy is very large: it seems clear that FOI is a business tool in the US in a way in which it just isn't in the UK.

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In my experience the "commerically sensitive" exemption is claimed far too often to make FoI of much use for what businesses would initially request (information relating to past tenders etc.)

Some more guidance from the OIC would help here, but businesses also need to start getting more creative in what they request.

Former President Jimmy Carter wrote an article for the Washington Post on 3 July that is quite critical of the US law, arguing that secrecy actually dominates and compliance measures are unsatisfactory. You can read it here: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2006/07/02/AR2006070200674.html

There are a couple of companies in the UK trying to help businesses make FOI requests (eg www.foiacentre.com), but their effectiveness is undermined by chronic delay, overuse of overly broad exemptions and poor enforcement of the law.

Americans may complain that their law allows for too much secrecy, but they are used to a far different level of disclosure and have much higher expectations. In the UK we are still fighting for basic information that Americans have long taken for granted such as politicians' expenses, inspections (restaurant, fire, business), crime incident reports and court records.

If we can't even get the basic building blocks of accountability, the chances are slim to none that businesses will be able to get any useful commercial information.

There is also an attitude among British public servants that the law should not be used to benefit private businesses. There is a legitimate point to this argument, but why should businesses be penalised for accessing information that they helped pay for (through their taxes)? They are citizens just like anyone else (some might argue extremely productive citizens).

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