The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) is the access to information legislation that tries to ensure that information is by default, free. Different countries have own Freedom of Information Act and although they are namesakes, they differ in various ways. The laws govern access to information and are the equivalent to the Promotion of Access to Information Act (PAIA). Many people use the terminology access to information (ATI) and freedom of information (FOI) interchangeably. The purpose of most freedom of information acts is to improve transparency between government and citizens – or public access to information held by the state.
Freedom of Information Acts
- England has the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).
- The United States has its own Freedom of Information Act.
- Australia has the Freedom of Information Act.
Who can you request information from?
Most freedom of information laws only allow you to access information held by public bodies. Most countries only allow access to information held by government agencies. One exception is PAIA, where you can access information from both private and public bodies.
Who can request information?
In the US, anyone can request access to information under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). You do not need to be a US citizen to make a request. Similarly, in the UK there are no limits to your age, nationality or where you live that will prohibit you from requesting information. In Australia, you do not have to use your real name when making a request except in those instances where the government requests you to.
What information can you access?
Freedom of information legislation usually encourages agencies to publish information that is in the public interest and that is often requested by the public. In this way, there is increased transparency between the agencies and requestors. Information that is constantly being requested might as well be published online to decrease the number of requests, and the administrative time that goes along with it.
Public interest and the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA)
Even though countries have Freedom of Information Acts, this does not mean that all information is freely accessible. Some of the Acts make public interest a basis for requesting access to information. Others like the UK, do not have a public interest overriding provision. The US, Australia, and South Africa consider the public interest in certain circumstances. Public interest does not mean that you can request any information just because you are inquisitive.
Just because something is interesting to the public does not mean it is in the public interest
What are the exemptions?
Although the aim of the Acts is to promote transparency and create a sense of openness between the requesting bodies and the requestors, there are exemptions. Generally, there is an exemption for accessing information that may be harmful to the government or against public interest. Other general exemptions in the Acts include exemptions for:
- national security purposes,
- information used for law enforcement purposes,
- information covered by attorney-client privilege, and
- personal information.
The main exemptions in the UK Freedom of Information Act include access to environmental information, health and safety information, and communications with the Queen.
The US Act has nine main exempt groups of information that include geological information on wells. This is an unusual exemption since most FOI Acts don’t include a similar exemption.
In the Australian Freedom of Information Act, there are nine categories for exemptions which include cabinet documents, and the voters’ roll and related documents.
In South Africa, PAIA not only deals with access to information but also protects the personal information of juristic persons. This may create potential issues for South African requests.
Who regulates freedom of information?
Australia, the US, and the UK have each created a body called the Information Commissioner in terms of their Freedom of Information Acts. This can be equated to the Information Regulator that is created by the Protection of Personal Information Act (POPI). When POPI was Bill, it also referred to the Information Commissioner. This was later changed to the Information Regulator.
Actions you can take
- Subscribe to our newsletter to stay up-to-date with the latest updates to Access to information laws.
- Purchase a book on Access to Information law in South Africa with comparisons with foreign legislation.
- Attend our Access to Information Workshop.
- Enquire about how we can help with your specific requirement and we’ll give you a fixed price quote.