The Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic is having an impact on response times to Freedom of Information requests. Please see this information from the Information Commissioner’s Office, and the Scottish Information Commissioner. You can contact the WhatDoTheyKnow team if you have any questions about your requests.
At times of crisis, the need for factual information is clear — and Freedom of Information is the lawful mechanism by which we can demand it. And yet, it is becoming increasingly obvious that across the world, rights to information are being eroded, by design or by circumstance, as governments and authorities deal with the effects of COVID-19.
Rather than restrict access to information, at this time bodies should be moving towards proactive release, and any necessary restrictions that are put in place must be temporary and time limited.
Keeping our rights intact
At WhatDoTheyKnow we are, of course, resolute that we must not allow the current situation to cause lost ground in the right to hold our authorities accountable.
Nonetheless, we do of course recognise the difficulties involved for authorities in keeping a service running at a time when the workforce may be depleted, staff may be working from home and not able to access physical files, and resources may be quite rightly being prioritised on the frontline of the fight to keep the population safe.
We call for a common sense approach that balances this new working environment with the enhanced need for public information:
- A recognition that not all authorities and not all departments will be equally affected by the current crisis. While it is clear that those which are working in the areas of health, policing, and other frontline activities are likely to be the least able to dedicate resources to FOI, other authorities/departments should do all they can to keep their channels of information open and active.
- In the spirit of transparency and public interest, all authorities should commit to the proactive publication of information, without the need for it to be requested. This should especially apply to decisions being made around public health, responses to COVID-19, and changes to rights and freedoms of citizens; and the data informing these decisions. Proactive publication requires fewer resources than responding to individual requests as they arise.
- Measures that are put in place to relax the right to information during this fast-moving environment must be recognised as temporary and reassessed at regular frequent intervals. When the health crisis has passed, they must be removed and the right to information must be restored to the same, or better, status as previously enjoyed by citizens.
Information is vital
More than ever, now is the time to ask questions: what plans do our governments have in place to tackle this unprecedented threat? What research is guiding their actions? How are they meeting targets for testing, for vital equipment, for hospital beds?
Or, just as importantly, as Julia Keseru asks in this piece: how are the most vulnerable in society being impacted by the broad stroke decisions being implemented?
In the UK, the government has stated a commitment to transparency: “In fast moving situations, transparency should be at the heart of what the government does”. But the gaps in existing data are noted by Jeni Tennison here, alongside a call for private companies to do what they can.
And at the same time, we’ve seen a relaxation of authorities’ obligations under the FOI Act in recognition of stretched resources and depleted staff.
These have taken the form of a notification from the ICO that they will be more lenient towards authorities providing late responses, and messages from authorities themselves that they will be providing a cut-down service.
Guy’s Hospital, for example, is understandably responding with a plea for people to consider whether their request is really required; while Bournemouth, Christchurch and Poole Council are auto-responding: “The Council is not currently in a position to respond to your request. This is as a result of ensuring that all available resources are diverted to support the community and we can continue to deliver essential and priority services during the unprecedented crisis presented by COVID19. Please resubmit your request at a later date and not before 8th June“.
Scotland’s emergency bill, voted through yesterday, massively extended the deadline for responses despite intervention from campaigners and MSPs. As a result, WhatDoTheyKnow’s auto-prompts when an authority has not responded within the mandated timeframe are currently wrong, and we’ll be looking at correcting this as soon as we can. [Update: We now account for the new law in Scotland, but there may be a few existing requests or authorities that we’ve missed out, so please get in touch if you have questions about your request.]
Information doesn’t just allow us to hold our governments to account over the actions they take during this crisis. As Newspeak House’s Corona Virus Tech Handbook has vividly demonstrated, shared knowledge allows collaboration, in some cases across borders, that may literally save lives.
A global lapse
Meanwhile, in countries around the world, the reaction has ranged from New Zealand’s ‘pro-transparency’ response, documented along with less hopeful dispatches from other countries in this post from Global Investigative Journalism Network, to Hungary’s worrying move to rule by decree.
At WhatDoTheyKnow, we stand by our international community of friends and colleagues who value the citizens’ right to know.
Access to Information and journalists’ networks are monitoring the erosion or upholding of our rights across the world, and will act to preserve them where we can.
Image: Dimitri Karastelev
Stuart Lawson is a librarian, one of the editors at the Journal of Radical Librarianship, and a part of the open access movement which advocates that research outputs should be distributed for free and online, with an open license — for the good of all.
So it should come as no surprise to learn that some of Stuart’s recent research, informed by Freedom of Information requests to the UK’s Higher Education Institutes, has focused on research journals — and specifically, how much institutes are paying for subscriptions. You can see the requests here, the data released in this spreadsheet, and the resulting report here.
The study collected details of payments made by HEIs for access to academic journals from 2017-2019, focusing on ten publishers. The research team discovered that the total expenditure was more than £330 million.
We spoke to Stuart and asked for some background to this FOI-based investigation, beginning with an explanation of the original motivation behind it:
“Open access publishing means that research is available to everyone, but there are debates around how that model can be paid for. And since there is currently a mixed system where some publications are open access and some require subscriptions to access, libraries are continuing to pay a lot of money for subscriptions while also trying to find ways to fund open access.
“I am a librarian who wants all research to be published open access rather than behind a paywall, so I felt that it was important to know the financial costs of the current system.
“Previously, the amounts were unknown. It’s impossible to have conversations about the appropriate cost of scholarly publishing if we don’t know what those costs are in the first place!”
The need for FOI
Freedom of Information is, of course, a practical way to obtain data from public authorities, and to build up a nationwide picture. But in this case, it was vital.
“Using the legal tool of FOI was the only way to get this data, as institutions were not voluntarily releasing it.
“One publisher, Elsevier, even had a clause in the contracts signed by libraries that forbade them from telling anyone how much they were spending, unless they were required to via an FOI request.
“These ‘non-disclosure’ clauses are common worldwide in publisher contracts, but thankfully not widely used in the UK (except by Elsevier) because Jisc — the higher education body that negotiates most deals — have worked to remove them”.
Despite the reluctance that one might assume that this signified, Stuart says getting the required information was pretty straightforward once they’d submitted the FOI requests. In fact, the hardest part was the admin:
“A majority of HEIs provided the data promptly, although some refused in the first instance which meant I need to push back and sometimes requested an internal review of the handling of the request.
“Eventually most institutions provided the data, but the hold-outs caused a lot more work for me”.
Making requests in public
Why was WhatDoTheyKnow particularly suitable for this project?
“It was the best way that I knew of to make bulk requests to organisations. But more importantly for me, I wanted to make sure there was a complete public record of all responses so that when I compiled the data, others could verify it”.
That’s one of the reasons that WhatDoTheyKnow is set up to publish FOI requests and responses online, so we were glad to hear this.
And what is Stuart’s desired outcome from this study?
“For people to realise the high cost of subscription charges, and for libraries to question how much they are spending. And perhaps even cancel some of the deals and spend their money on enabling open access instead.”
It’s possible that this piece of research will be enough of an eye-opener to start making a change in this area. But Stuart’s realistic:
“I hope I don’t need to send these requests again in future years, but the situation is still moving quite slowly, so it might be necessary to use WhatDoTheyKnow once again!”
Image: Bruno Mira
Every road user relies on signs, so keeping them tip-top is in everyone’s interest. Now Transport Focus have launched their Sort My Sign campaign, asking road users to help them do just that.
They’d like everyone to report any signs they spot that are dangerous, dirty, broken, or obscured.
To support this programme digitally, Transport Focus came to mySociety, asking if we could help create a simple and intuitive mapping interface where these issues could be reported.
Keep your eyes on the road
Specifically, the scheme covers signs on roads managed by Highways England, which means motorways and some A roads.
FixMyStreet was the obvious starting point — we already have a data layer for these roads, which means that your everyday FixMyStreet reports can be routed to Highways England rather than the council if they are the responsible body.
Plus, as we’ve detailed many times before, the FixMyStreet platform can be repurposed for any project dealing with location-based reports, and has in the past been put to all sorts of uses, from reporting empty homes to helping fight corruption.
Nonetheless, we perceived one potential challenge when it came to setting up sign reporting.
Don’t report and drive!
FixMyStreet is generally well-suited for people making reports on the go — in fact, thanks to the ‘use my location’ functionality, it is ideal for reporting issues like potholes or broken pavements on your mobile while out on a walk. But obviously, road signs are a slightly different matter. If you are driving, you certainly mustn’t be fiddling with your mobile phone, so ‘use current location’ is only helpful if you have an amenable passenger to make the report.
That’s fine — you can always make the report later of course: but that means you’ll need to know roughly where you were when you saw the sign, something that’s a bit trickier on a long drive than it might be on a stroll around your neighbourhood. FixMyStreet allows you to find any UK location with the input of a postcode or street name, but these are details you’re unlikely to have to hand if you have simply driven through.
After some thought we realised that, on a motorway, the location identifier most people will find easiest to recall will probably be the junction number.
So that set us a challenge: how could we best enable ‘search by junction number’?
Sign here…and here
Ideally, we wanted a user to be able to visit the Sort My Sign site and enter the name of a junction, just as they’d enter a postcode or street on the FixMyStreet homepage — and then to be taken to a map centred on that point.
But sourcing a mapping between motorway/junction number and co-ordinates proved surprisingly tricky. mySociety developer Matthew takes over the story.
“I first looked at OpenStreetMap data — its geocoder, Nominatim, worked really well for some junction numbers, but didn’t work at all for others. If a junction has been assigned a name (like J23 on the M6, which is known as ‘Haydock’) it can only be looked up by that name, not by number. But we wanted users to be able to look up junctions by number.
“I could also export all the junction data from OpenStreetMap, but the junction nodes alone aren’t linked to the motorway, so that looked like it would prove tricky to match up.”
FOI to the rescue
“But by a stroke of luck, I then discovered that someone had used another of mySociety’s services, our Freedom of Information site WhatDoTheyKnow, to make a request to Highways England asking for the positions of all the driver location signs (the repeaters every 100m or 500m along the motorways giving the name and distance from start).
“In response, Highways England had provided that information, so I knew I could use that to at least provide a mapping between location sign and geographic co-ordinates.
“Each sign also had information about what junction it was nearest or between, so by constructing an average of all the location sign co-ordinates associated with a particular junction, I came up with a pretty good estimate for the location of the junction itself.
“I added all the sign and junction data into a small SQLite database (which means it’s portable and doesn’t need to be associated with the main database) and wrote a little bit of code to spot when someone entered a junction name in any of a variety of different formats, then look up the matching location in this database”.
Signed, sealed, delivered
To test this out, Matthew had all his colleagues name their favourite junction… perhaps not to be recommended as a party game, but it did at least prove that his code had cracked the problem.
Something much appreciated by Head of Strategy at Transport Focus, Guy Dangerfield, who says, “mySociety has been excellent in understanding what we needed and finding ways to achieve our objectives.”
You can give the new system a go here — and perhaps bookmark the site so that you know where to report a sign next time you see one that needs fixing.
Once you’re safely off the road, that is.
You may remember our recent post on the surveillance techniques in use by police forces, as investigated by the campaign group Privacy International.
Several of you tweeted or commented that you were concerned to read of these new technologies. Well, here’s a way that you can get involved in finding out more.
Sounds fluffy? The reality is a bit more chilling. Cloud extraction technology allows the police to gain access from a citizen’s mobile phone to cloud based services such as their email, browser activity, and social media. So, if you are stopped and your phone is examined then handed back, surveillance might not stop there. Even after the phone is returned, using this tech police can monitor your online activity on an ongoing basis, seeing what you search for, trawling through your social media posts, and even accessing your location data.
Whether or not you’ve ever been detained by the police, you might like to know whether this sort of surveillance is in action in your own local neighbourhood. And that’s where FOI comes in.
To make everything as easy as possible for you, Privacy International have used pre-filled FOI requests* and provided the wording you should include. You can also see which forces have already been contacted, so as not to waste time making duplicate requests. Here’s where to get started.
Camilla Graham Wood, a Legal Officer at Privacy International, is clear about the benefits WhatDoTheyKnow has brought to their campaigning: “Using WhatDoTheyKnow we have created a way for members of the public to quickly and easily contact their local police force and ask them about intrusive surveillance tech. We were able to embed this on our own website and to pre-fill certain boxes as well as adding a tag so we can follow the progress of the campaign.
“Engaging the public in this way shows the level of public interest in policing technologies and introduces those who might not have used Freedom of Information request before to this valuable transparency tool”.
*If you’re running a campaign and you’d like to know how to set up something similar, take a look at this blog post where Gemma explained it all, back in 2016.
Image: Gilles Lambert
We’ve recently made a small change to WhatDoTheyKnow. Now, if your request has resulted in a news story, you can add the link as a ‘citation’.
If you’re a journalist or a campaigner, we hope this is a useful way to give your stories some more readership (not to mention a nice inbound link from a high-ranked site for your search engine ratings).
And if you’re simply a citizen whose request was picked up by the press, there’s now a way to share how the information you’ve obtained fits into the news agenda.
There’s a benefit for the wider transparency community, too. We think that, in aggregate, these links will serve to show others just what a simple FOI request can do.
Requests often start off as nothing more than an inkling or a nagging question, but there’s always the chance that one of them will reveal important or interesting information, hitting the news, reaching a wider readership and — who knows? — maybe even changing hearts and minds. For big stories, it will be good to be able to create a permanent record of where it all began.
More broadly, when you use this feature you’ll be helping us to understand what sort of impact the site is having, too. We’re always keen to spot news stories based on WhatDoTheyKnow requests, but papers don’t always cite a source or link back to the site, meaning that our monitoring is often dependent on a manual search where stories look like they might have originated with one of our users.
How to add a citation
You’ll find the feature in the right hand column of your request page. Just click on ‘Let us know’:
…and paste the URL in:
If there’s more than one story, you can click ‘New Citation’ to add another one.
The way we’ve set this feature up, WhatDoTheyKnow users can add a citation to any of their own requests — but if you spot a news story that’s linked to a request that isn’t yours, please do contact the WhatDotheyKnow team.
They’ll assess it and input it if they find it to be valid. Our aim here is, of course, to prevent spammers from adding irrelevant links to the site.
Users of WhatDoTheyKnow Pro, on the other hand, have the ability to add citations to any request.
This work is one of the ongoing improvements that we’re working on thanks to a grant from Adessium.
Image: Kaboom Pics
A lie, as the saying goes, can travel halfway around the world before the truth can get its boots on.
That’s all the more so in the age of social media. Whether it starts as a misunderstanding, or a deliberate attempt to mislead, before you know it an untruth can be swept up to make a political point, used in arguments and believed by many — and never mind that there’s no factual basis to it.
In 2016, we pointed out a meme spreading false allegations about immigrants, and that the response to an FOI request on WhatDoTheyKnow was providing a way for people to challenge the post with facts.
Back then, the false rumour being spread was that immigrants were entitled to benefits payments far in excess of the reality. It came to our attention when we realised that the FOI request proving it wrong had become one of the most-visited pages on WhatDoTheyKnow that month.
And now, almost exactly the same thing has happened again.
One of the pages with the highest number of visitors in November was this request asking if people (specifically muslims) using their homes as places of worship are exempt from paying council tax.
The FOI response says “Such an exemption does not exist”.
A quick search reveals that this isn’t the first FOI request on this subject made on WhatDoTheyKnow. In fact, there are several, dating back to 2009, made by different users to a range of different councils.
In 2010 Leeds City Council responded to a request that said, “I heard an alarming rumour that newly built houses in Dewsbury in the million pound price bracket were claiming a large reduction in their council tax because one room was deemed a place of worship”.
The council said: “There is no provision within council tax legislation for discounts or exemptions from Council Tax for residential properties which have a place of worship”.
And in 2009, Cornwall Council responded to a similar request, “There is not an exemption from Council Tax for houses classed as a place of worship”.
We don’t know whether the people making these FOI requests were doing so as a way to challenge the meme’s false claims, or because they saw it and sensibly decided to reserve judgement until they knew the facts. Either way, it’s a great use of WhatDoTheyKnow and these responses will stand as a permanent reference point for anyone who wants to check the facts around this matter in the future.
UPDATE: After tweeting this story, we had a response from Andrew White who gave some further background from his experience on the Parliament petitions service:
We picked this up on the Petitions website as a Google Search alert – updated both this petition https://t.co/1Itmm0s8R2 and https://t.co/aPqIWYzX06 with a link to the Full Fact article. The recent spike had its origin in a Facebook video: https://t.co/bAzc4N1fBc
— Andrew White (@pixeltrix) December 19, 2019
In a terrifying example of how misinformation can be spread in the most unexpected of ways, as you can see in the Facebook video linked to in the tweet, a petition that led with the words Muslims who use their living area’s within their homes as a place of Worship, are exempt from paying Council Tax [sic] was identified by the Amazon virtual assistant Alexa as the most suitable information source for the question “Do Muslims have to pay council tax if they pray in their own homes?”.
Presumably the fact that the petition was located on an official government website gave it, in Alexa’s view, the credibility needed to cite it as a source.
Image: Climate Reality
We’ve previously written about how best to proceed when an FOI request has been refused, but when there isn’t a response at all that’s a slightly different problem. However, up until now, we’ve treated both in the same way. We’ve now made some changes to reflect the difference.
If you do receive a response, but feel it’s inadequate or that your request has been wrongly refused, there are two ways of contesting the outcome. The first is to ask for an internal review, where the request is reassessed inside the same authority (by a different team or person). The second is to appeal to the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO).
To reflect this, our approach when providing prompts to WhatDoTheyKnow users has been an escalation ladder — suggesting people request an internal review, and then appeal to the ICO if still dissatisfied. However, as we learned when talking to the ICO earlier in the year, that this isn’t always the fastest route to getting a response.
An internal review is useful when disagreeing with a decision, but when the issue is that the statutory deadline for a response has passed, and follow-up messages haven’t been answered — a situation our colleagues at Access Info aptly refer to as ‘administrative silence’ — it can be better to complain directly to the ICO.
According to the statutory code of practice, a public body may take up to 20 working days to undertake a review, and so this route is likely to result in further delay, whereas an intervention by the ICO may have a faster result.
So when a request is overdue, our email prompt will no longer suggest that users might want to seek an internal review, but instead we suggest sending a follow-up message to the authority and note that they can appeal directly to the ICO.
However, if you have an issue with the actual decision of a request (for instance, disputing an exemption applied), internal review is the correct first port of call — and in a surprising amount of cases can be very successful. While we don’t have figures covering all kinds of authorities, for requests made to central government, 22% of internal reviews resulted in some change to the original decision (and 9% were completely overturned) and for local government this figure is between 36-49%.
Both internal reviews and appeals to the ICO can be effective methods at redressing disputes around Freedom of Information requests, but it is important to consider which is the right tool for the situation.
Image: Ümit Bulut
Camilla Graham Wood is a Legal Officer at Privacy International, an organisation advocating and litigating for stronger protections of citizens’ privacy, dignity, and freedom.
At AlaveteliCon, Camilla presented on PI’s ‘Neighbourhood Watched’ campaign against the deployment of new technologies by police forces in the UK, many of which are unknown to the general public — and unrestricted by current regulation.
These include facial recognition, hacking, mobile phone extractions, and predictive policing: all examples of the police harnessing new technology with the aim of becoming more efficient — but where PI see great risks for the loss of liberties and for mistakes to be made. Freedom Of Information has been a crucial tool in their efforts to uncover the facts.
An initial tip-off
We asked Camilla how the organisation had first become aware of these technologies.
“It’s hard to find out about technologies if the state doesn’t want you to know about them.”
“We were contacted by investigative news co-operative Bristol Cable, who had looked into police accounting records and seen reference to Cellebrite, an international company well known for selling mobile phone extraction technology”.
Mobile extraction allows the police to download all content and data from a phone. At AlaveteliCon, Camilla explained, “They fit a device, about the size of an iPad, to your phone and it will copy across everything on there. This was rolled out, without any announcement, around the London Olympics.
“Obviously you might have concerns around police accessing the material that’s on your phone at that time, but there are also ongoing implications — for example if you don’t change your password afterwards, they then have access to all your various accounts on an ongoing basis — they can access your email, social media etc.
“So we decided to take Bristol Cable’s investigation further, and that led to the use of FOI to uncover the extent that this technology was being used, particularly for low level crimes.
“We anticipated this would show whether it was being used on a wide scale by frontline police officers. And it is”.
Neither confirm nor deny
“New surveillance technologies are radically transforming the ability of police and intelligence agencies to monitor our civic spaces.”
That may sound like a simple result: put in some FOI requests, get the information back. In reality, though, it has not been quite so easy. “The state often does not want to say when they’re using specific technologies, so they will use the ‘neither confirm nor deny’ response. It’s hard to find out about technologies if the state doesn’t want you to know about them.
“We sent FOI requests to all 43 police forces in the UK in January 2017 to find out which were using this technology in relation to low level crimes. We then sent follow-up requests later in the year. A large number of the forces responded that this second request was vexatious, largely because we had already asked questions about other forms of surveillance such as predictive policing, facial recognition and social media monitoring. They said that because we had already asked about what new technologies they were using, our FOI request on mobile phone extraction was vexatious.
“This meant that we had to request individually to each force to conduct an internal review, then subsequently a review by the Information Commissioners Office. But we were, at least, successful in this challenge”.
Camilla explains that although PI eventually received these responses, a number of them had had to restrict the amount of information provided due to time and cost limits. That in itself revealed something pretty telling — an inability to audit the use of mobile phone extraction. “It appears that the data is held on individual files, so they could not tell us how many victims, witnesses and suspects had been subject to this technique”.
The work hasn’t all been adversarial though. At AlaveteliCon, Camilla explained how she had attended police conferences as a speaker. Though a little daunted, she found that she was warmly welcomed by officers who wanted to know more about how they could better answer FOI requests.
Facial recognition, body cameras and predictive policing
“PI is particularly concerned about technologies that police can, and sometimes do already use to monitor people who have not committed nor are suspected of any crime.”
What are the other devices and methods in use that the public may not be fully aware of? Camilla highlights body cameras which can be switched on or off by the police officer wearing them, and the footage from which can be used in tandem with facial recognition.
Then there are IMSI catchers, which imitate a mobile phone mast and are able to monitor your location and activity. Also of concern are predictive policing methods, which raise all kinds of issues around biases that are baked in to the system — Beryl Lipton from Muckrock in the US is also doing work around this, and we’ll be writing about that in a further post soon.
Should we be worried?
Reading about such technologies, one might dismiss any concerns — after all, police have a job to do, and it’s natural that they should be using the latest advances in tech to do so. Camilla spells out why we should apply a little more judgement:
“FOI is one of many options we’ve used to discover information about what the government is doing, often in secret. It can be one of the few means to find out that information.”
“New surveillance technologies are radically transforming the ability of police and intelligence agencies to monitor our civic spaces and collect, categorise, store, analyse, and share our personal data. These authorities are expanding the depth and breadth of their surveillance of our civic spaces (by that I mean real life spaces like public streets, parks and squares, as well as digital spheres including the internet, messaging apps, and social media platforms), often without sufficient legal basis or democratic input and oversight.
“While new technologies may be deployed under the guise of protecting democratic society, without adequate regulations and safeguards those technologies can threaten democratic participation and dissent — and thereby undermine democracy itself.
“PI is particularly concerned about technologies that police and intelligence agencies can, and sometimes do already use to monitor people who have not committed nor are suspected of any crime”.
Freedom of Information is the key to transparency
“People have a right to transparency around the technologies that are being used; they have a right to question whether there is any justification for the deployment of these tools”
So, time to deploy our right to information, something that every UK citizen enjoys. How useful has FOI been to the campaign?
“FOI is one of many options we’ve used to discover information about what the government is doing, often in secret.
“It can be one of the few means to find out that information. As far as I am aware, there was nothing published on the use of mobile phone extraction by the police. The public were unaware the scale that this was being used.
“As a result of our FOI activity, this has been brought into the open”.
Taking it further
But PI’s activity and the wider repercussions of the campaign don’t stop there. “Based on these findings, we published a report.
“We’ve also written to the Investigatory Powers Commissioner stating that we believe the use of this technology may constitute hacking or interception.
“We have complained to the Information Commissioner that the tech is in breach of the old and new data protection act — that complaint is still under investigation. We’ve also given evidence to the Law Commission in relation to their consultation on the use of search powers; an investigation was commenced by the Scottish Parliament into the use of this technology by Police Scotland; and we’ve trained lawyers to raise awareness about this technology.
“Our work has even informed the debates around the use of this technology against rape survivors and we have raised concerns about the relevant issues to digital forensics”.
You can get involved
Now PI hope to get the general public mobilised in protesting these affronts to our privacy. “We hope to see people challenge their local police force on the use of these technologies. As we approach the local elections next year and in particular the election of Police and Crime Commissioners, we would encourage individuals to use the materials in our Neighbourhood Watched campaign and write to their local representatives to ask what new technologies are being used against local residents.
“People have a right to transparency around the technologies that are being used; they have a right to question whether there is any justification for the deployment of these tools and to ask what safeguards and protections are in place to protect against misuse and abuse”.
PI are now keen to replicate the Neighbourhood Watched campaign in other countries, to help create more transparency and accountability around these technologies.
Finally we asked Camilla whether she had advice for those involved in sometimes difficult investigations such as this. She had just three words: “Persistence is key”.
Image: Phil Hearing
Vouliwatch is a platform for Greece which strives to make democracy more accessible for all. If you’re familiar with mySociety’s projects, it might be easiest to see it as a mixture of TheyWorkForYou (it publishes MPs’ votes); WriteToThem (making it simple for citizens to contact their representatives), and a campaign for more transparency and better oversight in the country’s parliament, often using Freedom of Information toward these aims.
This year, Vouliwatch found themselves in the extraordinary position of issuing a lawsuit to their own parliament. Their Managing Director Stefanos Loukopoulos explained how it all happened, in his presentation at AlaveteliCon.
He left us with quite the cliffhanger — would the case go to court or not? — so we were keen to catch up and find out how it had all resolved. But to begin with, here’s what he told us back in October:
“In Greece, there’s an independent committee known as the “Committee of Control”: it’s made up of judiciary, ombudsmen, and three MPs sit on it as well.
“Its role is to audit and check asset declaration and the finances of MPs, as well as the financial activities of political parties.”
As you’re probably aware, over the last eight years Greece has been in the grips of a massive financial crisis, losing more than 25% of its GDP. Stefanos says, “It’s a situation unknown anywhere else in history.
“The two parties who were in power during the period that led up to the crisis owe, between them, over 350 million Euros to the banks, the majority of which is unserviceable.”
So, that’s the background. And now to the nitty gritty of the case.
“Every year the Committee of Control put out a report. For the last three years it has said exactly the same thing: ‘Some political parties’ have taken public funding which was supposed to be for research, and used it for operational purposes. However, the report doesn’t go into detail of which political party, or how much money.
We were accused of trying to destabilise democracy. We think that actually, democracy is more harmed by hiding this information!
“The Committee has the power to impose sanctions, and the law is quite clear on this point: if funds are not being used for what they should be, or are stated to be used for, then they need to be returned… but year after year, these powers weren’t used and nothing was done about it.
“We believe people have the right to know what’s happened to this public money. We sent letters, but in return we were just accused of trying to destabilise democracy. We think that actually, democracy is more harmed by hiding this information!”
“After two years, we finally submitted a formal FOI request. We didn’t expect an answer (and we didn’t get one) but at least we were covered by FOI law, so we knew exactly what information we should have been entitled to. After consulting with a law specialist we decided to take Parliament to the constitutional court. This is the first time anything like this has ever happened.”
And so that was how Vouliwatch ended up issuing a lawsuit to their own parliament. The day Stefanos was telling this tale at AlaveteliCon, things had started to move. He said:
“The legal team at Parliament have suggested just today that the information we asked for has actually been released, but I haven’t received it yet. I’ll keep you updated. I’d love to take them to court really, it would create a far bigger buzz and perhaps open more people’s eyes to what FOI is and how it can work to expose malpractice.”
So, of course, when catching up with Stefanos a few weeks later, we were keen to know: was the information released, or did they get to go to court?
“In brief, yes, the information was released, so there was no court appearance after all.”
But the effort was still worthwhile on many fronts. The information was, Stefanos says, shocking:
If it wasn’t for our FOI request and our appeal to the Constitutional Court, no-one would have ever heard about it.
“The current ruling party Νέα Δημοκρατία (New Democracy) — which, by the way, owes give or take 142,100,000 Euros to the Greek banks (and it should not be forgotten that the banks have been practically recapitalised by the taxpayer on a number of occasions during the crisis) — has been using the state subsidy intended solely for educational and research purposes to repay its loans, for at least two consecutive years. This amounts to about a million Euros.
“The Committee of Control had actually detected this malpractice, but did not impose any sanctions — and worse, actually tried to conceal the story. If it wasn’t for our FOI request and our appeal to the Constitutional Court, no-one would have ever heard about it.”
There’s more detail on the whole tale on the Athens Live site. But getting the story out to the wider population has been a struggle, says Stefanos:
“Unfortunately the media landscape in Greece is very problematic, to say the least. All the big mainstream media groups belong to a handful of oligarchs (shipping tycoons, mainly) who have historically had close ties to the traditional political parties, New Democracy and PASOK.
“So, unsurprisingly perhaps, our story was covered only by independent media or left leaning newspapers and was totally ignored by all the big media groups.”
Of course it’s daunting to take your own Parliament to court. But the prospect of facing a court case is also exciting at the same time.
But there have been some visible results from Vouliwatch’s hard work.
“The new president of the committee publicly pledged that they would be stricter during the next auditing process.
“So that’s a positive outcome, but I must say that he didn’t mention anything about adding more details in the next report (which should be published by the end of the month so we are really looking forward to seeing what it will look like).
“Meanwhile, we got in touch with the parliamentary groups of various parties (except for New Democracy of course) asking them to table a parliamentary question on the issue. The only one that took it up was Μερα25 (Mera25), which is the Greek branch if you like of the Democracy in Europe Movement Diem25, and is led by Yanis Varoufakis. The (oral) question was posed in Parliament during its plenary session and the shadow minister of the interior tried to justify New Democracy’s actions by using legally unfounded arguments.
“We countered/deconstructed these in a reply and published it out — and Μερα25 is going to use it in their comeback question.”
And as for Vouliwatch’s day in court? It’s not entirely off the table, though now to the Committee of Control rather than Parliament as a whole: “Currently we’re drafting a lawsuit against the committee for breach of duty and will submit it to the relevant attorney general.”
This sort of work matters in Greece, and not only to uncover malpractice. Even if it’s hard to get mainstream media coverage, it all helps to highlight people’s right to information and how FOI can be used. But Stefanos says it’s not easy:
Our case proves that FOI does have a strong role to play in the fight against corruption/lack of transparency
“FOI in Greece is, unfortunately, virtually non existent. Despite the decent legal framework around it, citizens and journalists alike are unaware of their rights and how to exercise them — and the state (as well as public authorities/institutions in general) have failed to communicate it or make it easy for the public to use.
“I think our case proves that FOI does have a strong role to play in the fight against corruption/lack of transparency in Greece; however, one may be easily dissuaded and disappointed because in most cases one needs to resort to litigation in order to get a response.
“In other words, we took the case this far because it’s part of our work as an organisation. I doubt that a citizen or journalist would follow the same strenuous course as we did, bearing in mind the costs of litigation, the time required, the legal research etc, etc.”
Is it daunting issuing a lawsuit to government?
“Yes, of course. But the prospect of facing a court case is also exciting at the same time. If we were ordered to pay out a large amount in reparations it would be close to catastrophic for our organisation. However, our case was legally airtight and the chances of losing it minimal, which is why Parliament decided to back off and release the information in the end.”
Bravo Vouliwatch — and we’ll be watching future happenings with great interest.
Stefanos Loukopoulos is the managing director of Vouliwatch and spoke at AlaveteliCon in October 2019.
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