The Freedom of Information technologies conference, AlaveteliCon, provided an excellent chance to share experiences and advice.
We heard from people who run Alaveteli sites all over the world, and we learned that many of the challenges in running FOI sites are similar, no matter where they are. That’s great, because it means that we can combine our knowledge and share our experience to overcome them.
Alaveteli is designed to work anywhere. The ideal is of a website which shows users how to make an FOI request, and sends it off to the right recipient to get it answered, then publishes the reply, ensuring that the information becomes truly open. But in many places, local circumstances interrupt that process at various stages.
Here are some of the sticking points that were brought up. We may not have immediate solutions for all of them, but there were plenty of ideas mooted at the conference.
If you’d like to add some more, please do comment on the Alaveteli mailing list. It would be great to see further discussion and ideas.
Alaveteli, in its basic form, doesn’t cater for certain FOI processes. We heard of cases where:
- A small fee is payable for each FOI request;
- Making a request requires an electronic ID or digital signature, which most people don’t have and which is not trivial to apply for;
- Responses are only provided by post, on paper, thus circumventing publication online;
- Requests are not accepted by email (although this ruling has also been turned around successfully in at least one country—Uruguay—and indeed it is an issue that WhatDoTheyKnow faced in the UK);
- Authorities will not reply to the email addresses that FOI sites generate, because they are not “real” (ie they are not attached to the requester’s own personal email account);
- The requester must give their name, phone number and address. This is already a potential disincentive to making a request, but then the response often includes them and they must be manually redacted by the site administrator.
Here are a few of the solutions which were mentioned:
- Where digital signatures are required, site admins are sending off requests on behalf of users: it’s not ideal and it takes a lot of time, but it is doable.
- Similarly, the (non-Alaveteli) Russian FOI site RosOtvet passes users’ requests by a panel of lawyers, who make sure they are correctly worded in order that they stand the best chance of being considered.
- Frag Den Staat, which is a German non-Alaveteli FOI site, includes a function where users can scan and upload their responses, where they’ve been provided on paper. It also allows users to redact any parts they’d like to keep private.
- Additionally, in response to authorities complaining that their email addresses weren’t ‘real’, Frag Den Staat set up their own email provider called Echtemail (which translates as ‘real email’) and started sending requests from there instead. It hasn’t changed things yet, but they are continuing to campaign.
- In Australia, this same “not a real email address” policy was challenged—and overcome—by a volunteer at RightToKnow.org.au, who got a new ruling put in place.
- In places where any type of email has been refused as a legitimate channel for an FOI request, that should be challenged. There are examples elsewhere (for example, in the UK) of requests being accepted via Twitter! Uruguay and Australia have shown that rulings can be overturned; let’s share experiences and see if we can do the same in other places.
- Keep highlighting the barriers and absurdities as you come across them, on your blog, in press releases, in whatever interviews you can get. There may be a general, unquestioned belief that your country has a functional FOI law: if your experience says otherwise, that narrative should be challenged. If you can position yourself as an expert on the niceties of FOI, the press will keep returning to you—and the better known you become, the more weight your campaigning will carry.
- …Other ideas? Let the Alaveteli mailing list know.
And some solutions we don’t recommend:
While it might be possible to add, say, a payment facility through a bolt-on service like PayPal, it tends to be our policy not to recommend this kind of adaptation.
Why? Because our general advice is to run the site as if we lived in an ideal world—in other words, run your Alaveteli site as though Freedom of Information were truly open to all, at no cost and with no barriers.
It’s the same philosophy that leads us to advocate for an ‘applicant blind’ FOI system, where it doesn’t matter who’s making a request because everyone has an equal right to information under the law.
In a more extreme example, it’s also why we advise people to set up Alaveteli sites even if there is no legal right to information in their country.
In some places, there’s no law in place obliging authorities to respond to requests. In others, the law exists, but it’s not very well adhered to. The result is the same: requests get sent, but for some, no reply ever arrives.
Clearly this is a fundamental problem in itself, but it also has a knock-on effect for the site as a whole: people lose faith in the system if they can see that it’s not getting results.
This is a harder nut to crack, but here are some thoughts:
In countries such as the UK, Croatia, and Czech Republic, there is a system in place to pre-empt non-compliance. In our view, this is the sign of an FOI law that is treated seriously by the authorities.
In these countries, the right to Freedom of Information is backed up by an independent ombudsman. Additionally, anyone who doesn’t get a response within the statutory amount of time is entitled to seek an internal review: that process is automatically embedded in Alaveteli, with a reminder going out to the user if they haven’t received a reply in time.
If you do not have such a system in your own country, the advice was to campaign and highlight poor practices: again, this is an area where successful campaigners should be able to share knowledge with those who need it.
Data about the percentage of requests that are going unanswered can make a compelling story for the press, and also help with campaigning and advocacy. Highlight success stories, and show the public value of FOI.
If you have additional ideas, let everyone know on the Alaveteli mailing list.
Henare from OpenAustralia Foundation told the story of Detention Logs, a campaign to bring transparency and accountability to the detention of immigrants by publishing data on conditions and events inside detention centres.
While the authorities did not simply refuse to respond to requests for information, they found a way to evade their duties, deciding that 85 varied requests (pertaining to different events and detention centres all across the country) could be counted as one. Then, having rolled them into a single request, they were able to declare that it fell under the banner of ‘an unreasonable amount of effort’ required to respond.
Henare stated that one of Alaveteli’s great strengths is the fact that it publishes out requests even if they go unanswered. That means that they stand testament to the facts that authorities don’t want to release, as well as those that they do. Detention Logs will persist as an archive for the future, and maybe the situation will be turned around in more enlightened times.
Official government sites
We heard that in Uruguay, the government are planning to start their own online FOI website. As it happens, mySociety has also been involved with setting up an FOI site for the government in Panama. So it’s interesting to ask whether there is a place for independent Alaveteli sites to exist in tandem with the official sites.
One thing to note is that Alaveteli was built with the user, the citizen, always in mind. Sites built on Alaveteli make it easy and safe to file an FOI request, while government sites are more likely to have government needs in mind.
For example, we don’t yet know whether the Uruguayan government site also intends to publish requests and responses. If not, the ‘added value’ of Uruguay’s Alaveteli site would be obvious.
But! Together we’re stronger
Any one of these sticking points can seem like a real problem. But as well as a software platform, Alaveteli is a community, and we can work together to get results.
If you need help or advice, you can always ask on the Alaveteli mailing list, where you will find people just waiting to share their support. There are now 20 Alaveteli installs, each representing a learning curve and a wealth of experience for their implementers. Together, we have more global knowledge on FOI than perhaps any other organisation—let’s use it!