FoIA – a private sector issue?

The Freedom of Information Act took full effect on 1 January 2005. Many organizations and a number of individuals had pre-planned information requests, which they submitted on – or shortly after – 1 Jan. Some of these requests were designed to test the detailed meaning and limits of the Act and, over the next few months, we’ll see those played out. The first twenty day period (the limit for an authority to respond) will be up shortly, and it’ll be interesting to see what requests have been turned down.

I think the most interesting aspect of these first few weeks of the FoIA is the number of private sector organizations that have been surprised to find that information they thought was not subject to the Act just might be. Private sector venture capitalists are determinedly secretive about their financial returns calculations – but public sector funds invest in them and so that information might – or might not – be required to be released. The ICAEW is a regulatory body – but if it is not subject to the FoIA, how can it really claim to be a regulatory organization? The public sector almost certainly has a right to know the details of facilities outsourcing contracts – which of course puts useful information into the hands of campaigners and competitors.

The truth is that, while the FoIA applies only to public sector organizations, it covers any information those organizations have – much of which comes from or is very valuable to the private sector. Private sector organizations, if they haven’t already, need to take pro-active steps to make sure they’re not caught in the headlights of an access request they can’t avoid.