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Thursday, August 04, 2011

Government prises open more of Labour's illiberal state

Two items in the press today and yesterday show further progress in improving the openness and accountability of government.

First up is this piece in today's Guardian that a series of changes to ease the rules for freedom of information requests are to be examined as part of a public consultation designed to open up Whitehall.

The paper says that fees could be changed and a time limit, which means that departments can refuse requests if they take more than 18 hours to process, could be relaxed under government proposals in a consultation document:

The consultation document, Open Data, calls for the following changes to freedom of information (FOI) rules to be considered:

• Lifting the time limit. "At present, public service providers subject to the [FOI Act] can refuse to release any information where it would take more than 18 hours (24 hours for government departments) to locate, retrieve and extract that information. This time limit does not include the time taken to consider whether the information is exempt from release or to prepare it for release."

• Changing the fee structure. At the moment requests can be refused if they cost more than £600. This could be increased to £1,000, opening the way for more requests to be granted.

One source said: "This is designed to encourage better self-regulation on data storage by officials. If they know that more requests are likely to be granted then they will start collating information more efficiently at an earlier stage."

• Exploring whether the information commissioner has enough powers to enforce FOI legislation. The document said: "The commissioner … has powers of entry and inspection in specified circumstances. It is an offence … to alter, deface, block, erase, destroy, or conceal information with the intention of preventing its disclosure. This offence can apply to any individual. Are these powers sufficient to enforce an enhanced right to data?"

• Changing the law to provide statutory time limits for internal reviews. At the moment there is no statutory time limit for the completion of time review on requests for data, which can lead to delays.

Second, is a piece in yesterday's Guardian, which I missed because I was on the Maes, where business secretary Vince Cable announced that he has scrapped plans to introduce the blocking of illegal filesharing websites.

Vince says that the scheme proposed by last year's Digital Economy Act is too cumbersome and unworkable, but said that some form of plan to bring down piracy sites is still being worked on:

A consultation document, launched by Cable, said that ministers intend to do more work on what other measures can be pursued to tackle online copyright infringement in an effort to stop widespread music piracy, which is increasingly spreading to television and film.

The business secretary said that people will also be able to make copies of music and other media for personal use, confirming well-leaked plans to relax the current law that makes it illegal to copy the contents of a CD they own onto an iPod or other digital device.

"This brings the law into line with, frankly, common sense," said Cable, responding to the Hargreaves report on the future of UK copyright law, which recommended the changes back in May 2011.

"A lot of this has to do with consumer freeedom. We need to have a legal framework that supports consumer use rather than treat it as regrettable. We can't say that businesses should embrace technology but say to consumers they can't use technology for products they have paid for."

The measures in the Digital Economy Act have been particularly controversial as they were seen as penalising innocent consumers who were copying material they had paid for onto computers etc for their own use. It was also considered uneworkable for similar reasons.
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