The global situation on Freedom of Information laws is “worrying,” with many countries providing slow responses and a poor quality of information, a new report has said.
The annual Open Data Barometer from the World Wide Web Foundation, which looks at the transparency and openness of 92 countries, says only half of the countries studied have “reasonably strong” FOI (or equivalent laws).
“The situation is worrying with regard to freedom of information (FOI) frameworks,” the report says.
“In those countries that have FOI laws, practical implementation is patchy, hampered by slow response times and poor quality of the information provided.” It continues to say it is “too rare” for acceptable responses to be provided on time.
The situation is worrying with regard to freedom of information (FOI) frameworks
Speaking to FOI Directory Jose Alonso, from the Web Foundation, said that governments around the world have made commitments to their FOI and access to information schemes but there has been little implementation.
“What we’ve been seeing over the last couple of years is that this is not progressing much. You see some advances on proactive disclosure in a few places but it’s not something that is widespread at all,” he said.
According to research from FreedomInfo.org there are currently 109 FOI, or similar, laws around the world. Togo (2016) and Vietnam (which will start in 2018) were the latest locations to introduce access regimes. However, these all perform differently and some grant more access rights to citizens than others; Russia and China’s access laws are presumably more limited than other countries.
Serbia, Slovenia and India have the best rights to access, a 2015 report by AccessInfo states. Tajikistan, Liechtenstein, and Australia make up the bottom three; the United Kingdom was placed at 30 in the RTI study.
Overall the latest work from the Web Foundation, ranks the UK top for its open data efforts. These are analysed in three categories: readiness, implementation, and impact.
Disturbingly, in this edition we saw a backslide on freedom of information, transparency, accountability, and privacy indicators in some countries
It’s the third year in a row that the country has appeared at the top of the rankings; the level-headed recommendations of the FOI Commission would have played a role in maintaining this position. The UK is praised for its open legislation, land ownership, and government spending data sets.
However, the report points out that across the globe the right to access information is worrying. It says: “Disturbingly, in this edition we saw a backslide on freedom of information, transparency, accountability, and privacy indicators in some countries.”
Alonso says that ‘open-washing’ is a “big concern” for the Foundation. This, he explains, is governments agreeing to publish more information proactively and focussing on open data, when proactive publication is only one part of being transparent.
“There’s lots of promises but not much action,” he says. Meanwhile the report adds: “Open data initiatives cannot be effective if not supported by a culture of openness where citizens are encouraged to ask questions and engage, and supported by a legal framework.”
Open data advocates should work more closely with transparency, privacy and right to information activists
Previously in the UK Francis Maude said he would like to see open data make FOI “redundant”. The Open Data Institute – which like the Web Foundation was created by Tim Berners-Lee – has previously said FOI and open data shouldn’t be confused, as both are needed.
Both types of access scheme should work in closer capacities, the Barometer said. The open data movement has “paid insufficient attention” to privacy and FOI.
“Open data advocates should work more closely with transparency, privacy and right to information activists to achieve better mutual understanding and coordination of efforts,” the report says.
“The International Open Data Charter should educate stakeholders that open data cannot be fully effective in the absence of basic foundations such as an effective freedom of information regime and robust privacy safeguards.”