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Saturday, 9 June 2012

Libraries losing patience with DCMS over DEAct, help with FOI?

After a year trying to get Open Digital funded I'm snowed under here with real work to pay the mortgage.

Anyhow, I put in a Freedom of Information Request to DCMS a while ago, after hearing a whisper in a pub in Whitehall that libraries, schools and colleges are particularly upset about the lack of action to protect them and their internet connections when the Digital Economy Act finally comes into force (in early 2014, by best estimates - or should that be 2104 as I first mistyped it?!).

My FOI was only partially successful.  I suspect officials at DCMS, on recognising my name, may have been less than enthusiastic in their search.

After a bit of toing and froing I got hold of this letter from CILIP, the Chartered Institution of Library and Information Professionals, via the fantastic MySociety site whatdotheyknow.com.

The tone of the letter suggests frustration from libraries pushing for firm legal safeguards that they will not be affected (financially or face having their internet connections limited in some way) by the Digital Economy Act.  As the CILIP letter puts it:
"We are very concerned that without specific clarification in the Initial Obligations Code that libraries and other public intermediaries are ‘internet service providers’, or ‘communications providers’, for the purpose of the Digital Economy Act, would face disproportionate costs and unexpected consequences."
It appears that the libraries' concerns are lost somewhere between Ofcom and DCMS:
"Regretfully, Ofcom have not been able to provide suitable reassurances to us that libraries (public, research etc) would be considered ‘non-qualifying ISPs’ and therefore outside the scope of the Digital Economy Act “online copyright infringement” provisions."
With further concerns:
"To date no impact assessment has been undertaken to establish the likely cost to libraries and other public intermediaries if they are considered subscribers for the purpose of the Digital Economy Act. Given that libraries, as well as universities, already take a range of steps to minimise copyright infringement by users on its network we believe that it would be entirely disproportionate to bring libraries or universities within scope of the Initial Obligations Code.
Libraries provide affordable internet access to people who do not have internet access at home, supporting the Governments move towards public service provision being digital by default"
Now, on to the way my FOI request has been handled.

On 6th March 2012 I put in a broad-ish enquiry, although because DCMS' dealings with libraries should be fairly limited this request should in no way have been too broad to hit the statutory time limit for Whitehall departments handling FOI requests.

Obscurely, and towards the end of the time limit, almost a month later on 3rd April 2012 DCMS asked me to clarify my request.

A bit aggrieved by this I contemplated launching a challenge to the handling of this request there and then. But in the end I relented, and clarified my request 2 weeks later on 20th April 2012.

It then took DCMS another full month to respond, with the last reply to date marked 21st May 2012.

But what appears to be blatant delaying tactics - tactics several other bodies requesting information from DCMS also have concerns about - are only half of the story.

Firstly my request yielded only two items of correspondence, despite several officials close to the DCMS and the Digital Economy Act showing me what appears to have been emails not uncovered by my FOI search.  But I don't have a copy of these emails so I'm stuck.

But wait!

The CILIP letter opens with the line:
"Thank you for your letter of the 12 January 2011 where you kindly stated that “libraries and universities will not be within scope of the obligations” "
Hmm - how come my freedom of information search did not return a copy of this letter?  I asked for "all correspondence between between the DCMS and UK public libraries and their representatives in which the Digital Economy Act is mentioned" and nothing in my clarification (limiting scope to Ed Vaizey and date range April 2010 to April 2012) affected this.

I will therefore contest this FOI response on this ground alone.

However I have another worry.  The one other email uncovered by my request, from someone at the British Library, uncovered by my request has large sections redacted because they are "outside scope".  I'm not sure this is even a legal grounds for redaction under the Act, maybe someone out there can help?

This is a bad interpretation of my request, since I asked for all correspondence where the DEA is mentioned.  Not partially redacted correspondence where sections are blanked; sections which officials feel shouldn't interest me.  It's not for officials to decide what is and isn't relevant to my oversight of the democratic process.

I'm minded to put in a fresh FOI request for the full email, giving them no wiggle room for the content to be redacted.

In the mean time I remain disgusted at the games which appear be played by officials paid for by my taxes when providing information I have a lawful right to access.

@JamesFirth

1 comment:

  1. Charles Oppenheim9 June 2012 at 13:22

    There is going to be a meeting between Ofcom and representatives from the libraries and higher education communities to discuss this very question on 19 July. I will be one of the library representatives. However, I am not optimistic that anything concrete will come out of it.

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