News about legal information relating to Information Technology from European directives, and pan-European legal requirements and regulations.
Access to Information: the Right to Know and the Need to Manage
On 1 January 2005 the UK implemented new legislation to provide access to information held by all public authorities: the Freedom of Information Act 2000 and the Freedom of Information (Scotland) Act 2002. While many countries have put Freedom of Information law in place, the UK resisted attempts to introduce this type of legislation until 2000, and it has taken five years to implement in full. The legislation now in force allows any person, from any country, to request access to any information held by a UK public authority, subject to certain (admittedly, fairly broad) exemptions. The Act applies to information held in any format, and from any date. At the same time, the Environmental Information Regulations 2004 updated previous legislation in order to provide for public access to environmental information. The new legislation supplements existing laws governing privacy and access such as the Data Protection Act 1998 and the Medical Records Act 1990.
The impact of a Freedom of Information Act has been far-reaching, far beyond simply requiring an organisation to respond to requests. There is now a presumption that information must be made available unless there is a reason otherwise - the 'right to know'. There is an obligation to publish information to the public proactively, and in electronic format wherever possible, so a person does not have to make a formal request for routine information. Every organisation subject to the Act has to present a Publication Scheme, detailing what information it commits to make available, for approval to the Information Commissioner. The CCLRC has an electronic publication scheme at http://www.foi.cclrc.ac.uk, which provides the information online wherever possible, and also provides a form for submitting requests. In addition, in support of our commitment to open publishing, our corporate digital repository, the CCLRC e-Publications Archive at http://epubs.cclrc.ac.uk, has been developed to record and publish the scientific output of CCLRC.
Legislation granting access to information is, however, meaningless if the organisation cannot actually locate that information when requested. Every public authority in the UK has needed to address its records management process and assess the technologies used for recording, and retrieving, its information. The risk of needing to verify electronic information in court requires technologies that support the evidential weight of information held in electronic form. The organisational requirement to capture e-mails from individual mailboxes to the corporate memory store has been given additional impetus. Like many public authorities, the CCLRC has implemented an accredited Electronic Document and Records Management system in support of its records management programme, working together with the other UK Research Councils to promote best practice and sharing of information wherever possible.
And what of Freedom of Information requests received? This organisation receives requests for information all the time, which are part of everyday business and dealt with as such. So far at CCLRC we have logged only eight FOI requests, and the information requested has been provided in full, at no cost to the requester. Central and local government and other agencies have received many more, some of which have still been refused, but the Act has undoubtedly increased the provision of information.
The impact of the Freedom of Information Act cannot be measured simply in numbers of requests and what information has been released or withheld. The cost in money and effort in preparing for the new access regime has been significant, but the benefits are already evident from improved information management. The Act has promoted a growing awareness of the need not only to archive, but to actively curate information, and to implement the technological solutions to provide continuing access to information in the future.
by Judy Beck, CCLRC
Editor: Heather Weaver, CCLRC, UK