FragDenStaat: a lighthearted approach with a serious mission

FragDenStaat (“Ask The State”) is Germany’s FOI site, running since 2011.

Having always provided a platform for the general public to submit FOI requests, the organisation recently made the decision to focus more on the campaigning side of their activities. By using pre-filled FOI requests and encouraging their supporters to send them, FragDenStaat can harness the power of numbers.

As Project Leader Arne Semsrott explains: “We are trying to show the possibilities of FOI, using it together as a group or movement with a shared goal, not just as separate individuals”.

It’s an approach they used in a campaign to uncover the hygiene ratings of restaurants (which, unlike the UK, are not routinely published in Germany) — users were invited to file a pre-written request to the relevant authorities, and over 20,000 such requests were made, then the responses published. It’s hoped that doing so will bring about change — FragDenStaat say, “The platform will provide transparency until the authorities do it themselves”.

More recently, a similar campaign sought to reveal the facts behind the herbicide glyphosate (aka Roundup). It began when FragDenStaat requested a study from the German Federal Institute that stated that the weedkiller “probably” isn’t linked to cancer.

“We were told not to publish it”, said Arne. “So we published it”.

This mischievous approach is one of FragDenStaat’s defining qualities, but there’s always a serious point behind it. In this case: “We were told that we weren’t allowed to publish this report, but through FOI, we – and therefore anyone – is allowed to have it. It’s ridiculous.”

This is also an issue which we sometimes come across at WhatDoTheyKnow, where responses come complete with a generic footer prohibiting the publication of the information. Like FragDenStaat we think there’s a good argument against this. Freedom of Information law in the UK as well as in Germany is “applicant blind”, so anyone can request the same document and get a copy of it. That being so, it is more efficient to publish it online, and it saves taxpayers’ money since the authorities aren’t having to respond to multiple requests for the same information.

The German Federal Institute thought differently, however, and FragDenStaat were taken to court for copyright violation.

Officially, the report couldn’t be shared: what now? Arne continues the story: “So we built a one-click mechanism where anyone could make the same FOI request. Within two weeks, 45,000 people had requested it. The Institute had never had so many emails and didn’t know how to cope.

“We know this because we then requested the internal communications around how they were handling it. They developed an online solution with a log-in code to prevent people spreading the report further. We then developed some code to automatically log you in and download it.

“The legal proceedings are still pending but we would like to see a judgment by the Court of Justice on copyright vs FOI.

“If we lose the case it might mean that copyright gets used as a reason for denial in lots more requests. And if this happens, we need to make so much of a fuss that it becomes an unattractive proposition to do so. What we have achieved so far, though, is that we are pretty certain that most public authorities don’t want to confront us that way anymore.”

Since turning into more of a campaigning organisation, FragDenStaat are involved in more than 45 lawsuits. That might seem daunting to some small organisations, but Arne thinks differently:

“Over time we have learnt that one of the biggest tools we have to change the practice of FOI is strategic litigation. We have won most of our cases and are always keen to tackle legal questions that have not been addressed in German courts before. We have the feeling that the FragDenStaat community likes our approach and there are enough people who are willing to donate for our legal costs”.

FragDenStaat consistently bring an inventive angle to their campaigns, which sometimes borders on cheekiness. Asked about this, Arne replies: “To most people, files and documents appear to be the most boring thing on earth (which of course they aren’t!), so we feel that we need a bit of fun to attract people to the topic. And actually it’s way more fun for us that way.

“I do believe that our actions have forced authorities to take us seriously. There are of course people who are not fans of our work, but there are quite a few FragDenStaat supporters among authorities – even if they don’t show that publicly”.

Another campaign focuses on migration politics across Europe, and specifically Frontex, the border force. FragDenStaat have been working in collaboration with Luisa Izuzquiza at AccessInfo to file requests and build up a picture of human rights violations towards migrants: “You can file FOI requests for Frontex documents anywhere in Europe, so we’re asking in different countries for ‘serious incident’ reports: these will tell you of human rights violations”.

This campaign, too, has involved FragDenStaat filing a lawsuit, this time in the European Court of Justice in Luxembourg. The hope is that it will clarify the degree to which Frontex is open to public scrutiny. Again, the costs of litigation are borne by supporters who are encouraged to chip in with a small donation of a few Euros, ideally on an ongoing monthly basis.

Arne says, “EU migration politics is a topic that I have worked on for a long time now. I think that it’s heavily underreported, especially since Frontex has gained a lot of power and budget increase over the last few years. By talking to activists in the field, we learned what kind of documents might be produced by the agency on a regular basis and we began systematically requesting them”.

Shockingly, the reports released show that Frontex are well aware of such abuse but close their eyes to it.

“A report about Libyan refugee camp said it had ‘concentration camp-like conditions’ – and you can be sure that if a German person says that, it is serious. It proves they are aware of the conditions, even though they are doing nothing about them”.

There have been results to this campaign: the European Commission has now issued a statement saying that they would investigate the claims.

Arne Semsrott spoke at AlaveteliCon, mySociety’s conference on FOI and technology, in September 2019.

Arne is one of the folk behind FragDenStaat, which is the German equivalent of our own WhatDoTheyKnow. Unlike many of the FOI sites around the world, FragDenStaat is not run on the Alaveteli platform, but on bespoke software that was inspired by WhatDoTheyKnow in the days before our codebase was made easier to install.

Incidentally, if you are running a campaign, you can also use pre-written requests in tandem with Alaveteli sites, including WhatDoTheyKnow. Instructions are here.

Image: Jen Bramley

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