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Friday, 26 August 2011

Freedom of Ignorance Act 2000: Ofcom refuses to release reasons behind redactions in policy documents

On 3rd August, Ofcom, together with the Department for Media, Culture and Sport, released two important documents relating to government internet policy.

One set out the feasibility of blocking [overseas] websites with the aim of reducing copyright infringement, and the other was a report into reducing the likely cost of the appeals process for those accused of unlawfully sharing copyrighted content under controversial measured in the Digital Economy Act 2010.

Both documents contained a surprisingly large number of redactions.  A bit of a sideshow was created when it transpired redactions in one document - the report into website blocking - were incorrectly applied, and it was possible for the original text to be recovered.  The same mistake was not made with the report into reducing the cost of appeals.

Incompetence aside, I wanted to know what had been redacted from both documents, and why.  But my request for letters and documents relating to who had requested information be redacted, and their reasons, was today refused.  As was my request for an uncensored copy of the report into reducing the cost of appeals, and TJ McIntyre's request for an official un-redacted copy of the website blocking report (even though unofficial copies of the document exist due to the prior blunder).

Pretending the horse is safely ensconced in the stable

At the time of the original release, a vague "think of the children" spiel was concocted by officials, who pointed out that knowledge of how to circumvent website blocking could be abused by children wanting to circumvent parental controls, and paedophiles wanting to circumvent child pornography blocks imposed by some (but not all**) ISPs.

I'm sorry, cloistered government officials, but this just doesn't wash.  As Trefor explains (and even Ofcom's own report acknowledges), the knowledge of how to circumvent web blocks is widely available.

It's not simply that the barn doors are open and the horse has bolted; the horse has been shot and shipped to France, and the barn has been converted into a spacious holiday let.

Additionally, I'm not convinced that this reasoning, however misguided, can apply to the report into reducing the cost of appeals.  What information is being hidden, and why?  And which person, persons or bodies have been leading the drive to keep information about the appeals process out of the public domain?

Freedom of Information Act and public interest

Both the blocking of websites and the legal process by which internet users can be accused (and cleared) of wrongdoing are clearly matters of public interest.

And it's not just specialists like myself - large sections of the mainstream media covered the recent debate on whether the Government should be allowed to shut down parts of the internet in times of crisis.  There is a high level of public interest into when and how internet restrictions should be applied.

The bottom line is that the public have a right to see how public policy is formed.  They have a right to know who is advising the government, and - except in very limited circumstances - what this advice is.  Especially when such advice concerns how legal safeguards such as the Digital Economy Act appeals process will work.

31 years ago...

Open Government is the title and subject of the very first episode of Yes, Minister! - first broadcast in 1980. In an ironic twist, archetypical civil servant Sir Arnold Robinson joins the Campaign for Freedom of Information upon leaving The Service.

His quotes, whilst in his post as Cabinet Secretary, appear highly contradictory to the aims of the Campaign for Freedom of Information, which he joined on retirement:
"If people don't know what you're doing, they don't know what you're doing wrong." 
"My dear boy, it [Open Government] is a contradiction in terms: you can be open or you can have government"
Both from Yes, Minister! Episode 1.1
I always assumed, in Sir Arnold's surprised retirement path, the writers intended to highlight how individuals easily succumb to instutionalised secrecy within the Civil Sevice, despite their own personal views.

31 years later...

We have the Freedom of Information Act 2000, but there's very little to stop government departments refusing to release information; conjuring excuses around vague public interest tests broadly in line with one or more of the many exemptions of the Act.

The Act sets out a maximum response window of 20 days, but in practice responses can take many months - or even years - for the full appeals process to conclude, by which time the public interest there was at the time may, in many cases, dissipated.  Or the officials involved have had time to quietly retire!


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