info2000 logo GREEN PAPER ON PUBLIC SECTOR INFORMATION
IN THE INFORMATION SOCIETY

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Hallstahammars Kommun - Jan Barklund


A most valuable topic, essential for the good functioning of our “information societies” in the 21st century.

In Sweden, the “Freedom of Press Act” is in power since 1766 and the “Freedom of Information Act” since 1809. The legal presumption is that documents kept by public authorities may be inspected by anyone, unless there is a specifically stated legal reason not to publish it (i.e. respect for individual integrity in medical and social service matters, respect for competitive companies’ interests if a disclosure would be harmful to a company, etc). Our municipal offices are visited every day by local journalists, who inspect the mail, take copies and write their stories about what actually happens. The main legal framework in Great Britain for similar matters is called “Official Secrets Act” - in Sweden, the presumption is that everything is open to inspection unless files can be closed with specific legal support. Public documents are public, and this applies in principle also to papers and documents which have been left with the authorities by companies, private persons etc.-Against this background, it is encouraging that the Americans have their “Freedom of Information Act” since 1966 (200 years later than Sweden). It is discouraging that these matters are still discussed in Europe. Here Sweden can offer much of experience etc to other European countries.

What is so exciting is that the basic principles were formulated and carried out in law-making 200 years ago - and that the very same basic principles can be respected and applied on today’s computerized society. That is because these basic principles reflect some principles which are also founding the European policies of today:

Transparency Public bodies are to be responsible to the public at large,and the bodies can be made responsible only if their deeds can be inspected. Their deeds can be inspected mainly through the inspection of actual files in the archives of the authorities and by inspection of current mail etc.

Subsidiarity Matters should not be handled up high in society but as near “ordinary people” as is possible. Publicity of documents etc. are matters that should be dealt with on the spot with as little inclusion as possible of central European agencies etc.

As a former archivist, today municipal director in a medium-sized Swedish local society, I offer you my personal comments to the Green Paper questions as follows:

1.How should the concept of “public sector information” best be defined?

The wonderful thing with the Swedish legislation from 200 years ago is that it is so simple. It does not define specifically what types of documents that should be made public etc, a task which never would have worked well even 200 years ago. Instead, as I stated above, the legal presumption is that documents kept by public authorities may be inspected by anyone, unless there is a specifically stated legal reason not to do so. And the Freedom of the Press Act ensures a similar basic freedom of expression with the necessary exceptions from the rule laid down in law.

The definition of “public sector information” should be made in very open terms, because it is as impossible today as it was 200 years ago to offer a comprehensive enumeration of examples of types of information (letters, minutes, calendars, memoranda, fax messages, electronic mail messages, registers, account books, receipts & verifications etc) that should belong to the “open sphere”. Instead, I think that the best European definition should be of a “Swedish type”, stating as simply as possible that the principles of transparency and responsibility demands that all types of information produced, received and kept by public bodies are to be public with an unlimited right of everyone to inspect them. The necessary exceptions should be laid down in laws, which should be harmonized within the European Union.

2.What new barriers are created at European level by the fact that the conditions for access to this information differ from one Member State to another?

What solutions are available?

The indicated barriers are not new but very old, since we have had different conditions in this field since 200 years. It seems that the “publicity principle” is considered a good thing in the United States, otherwise the European industry should not be disadvantaged in this field.

Who is disadvantaged? I think that big companies always have their ways when it comes to access to information: they can deal with governments and authorities from a strong position and can barter information if needed. Then, it is mainly small companies and private citizens that are disadvantaged by the present European system (or: lack of system). If a powerful commercial development is dependent upon the sound development of many small and medium-sized enterprises, the dissemination of information can be a crucial factor to be considered.

Fees can be barriers in an otherwise well-designed system for public information. Electronical information should be cost-free. Other information should be cost-free, too-with a possible exception of copying costs for great text volumes (over 10 copies?). A publicity system of this type should help Europe in its competition with the United States - and with Japan, where the status of information is unknown to me.

3.Could the establishment of a European directory of the information that is available be of help to European citizens and businesses? How could this best be carried out?

What categories of content should such directories contain?

Some sort of common directory might be of help when you deal with computerized information. For other classical types of information sources, kept in archives etc, some sort of overview of national administrative traditions and principles should be produced.

The work in this field should be led, harmonized and stimulated by a small central body on European level, but be carried out nationally by teams with include specialists (i.e. archivists, publicists and others) from different countries. The principle of subsidiarity should prevent us from forming some new “super-Department of Information” - which soon would choke from over-information.-The continuous inspection of the adherence to sound information principles could be entrusted to “ombudsmen”, also from Swedish tradition.

4.What are the consequences of the fact that the Member States have different pricing policies for information of this kind?

As said above, the right to access to information from public bodies should not be restricted by the charging of fees. Here, some type of European guidelines could be needed. If not, Europe will probably be at a disadvantage compared with the US.

5.Can the use of information provided by public-sector bodies lead to unfair competition?

Only if information is restricted, as it is today, with different traditions and attitudes in different Member States. I would think that the risk for unfair competition related to access to information is greater today than it would be in an all-Union system with free access to information for all.

6.What are the copyright, data-protection and liability implications?

I have very little good advice on these issues. But I don’t think that a change in attitude of the type discussed here must inevitably cause great changes in existing legal frameworks dealing with copyright, data-protection and liability matters.

I look forward to a good and fruitful discussion and I will try to follow up what comes out of it. Because - you will inform us, won’t you?

Sincerely yours,

Jan Barklund

Jan Barklund 
Tel +46 - 220 408 10 
Prästgården 
Fax +46 - 220 412 48 
730 40 Kolbäck, Sweden 
Email asta.jan@ebox.tninet.se

Jan Barklund 
Hallstahammars Kommun 
Tel: 0220-24000 
Fax: 0220-10500 
Internet Address: jan.barklund@hallstahammar.se 
Home Page: http://www.hallstahammar.se

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