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FOIA Update: Information Policy Around the World

FOIA Update
Vol. II, No. 4

Information Policy Around the World

By Harold Relyea

When the Freedom of Information Act was adopted in the United States in 1966, similar disclosure law had already existed for some time in two Scandinavian countries. The right of public access to official information had been maintained almost continually in Sweden since 1766. An information statute, somewhat more limited than the Swedish model, had been operative in Finland since 1951. However, this law is not part of the Finnish constitution, contains very general standards of exception to the principle of openness, fails to define what constitutes a record or document, and may be used only by legal citizens.

After the Freedom of Information Act was adopted in the United States, five other nations established laws allowing public access to government records. Denmark and Norway enacted legislation in 1970; Austria, in 1974; Holland and France followed in 1978. None of these statutes appear to allow the degree of access available under the Swedish or American laws. Further, in all of these countries, including Sweden and Finland, the volume of requests for official records and information is dramatically smaller than the case load in this country.

At least five nations are in various stages of pursuing freedom of information policy. The Swiss parliament has shown some interest in the subject; and proposals creating broader access to government information, amending existing law, are expected soon in the Danish parliament.

Situation in Canada

Although freedom of information legislation has been offered in the Canadian parliament by private members since 1969, the Liberal Government did not take an official interest in the matter until 1977, when an exploratory paper was issued. This action prompted parliamentary study into the following year and pledges from the Trudeau regime that legislation would be forthcoming. Elections in May, 1979, produced an upset victory for the Progressive Conservatives who offered their own freedom of information measure in October. A few days after the legislation was referred to committee, in December, the Clark Government collapsed.

Elections in May, 1980, returned the Trudeau Liberals to power. A comprehensive information policy proposal, containing a freedom of information section, was introduced in July and by January of this year had moved to committee consideration in the House of Commons. Patterned after the American Law, the legislation establishes a presumptive right of access to administrative records for any person, permits a variety of exceptions to the rule of disclosure, and vests primary enforcement of the proposed statute with an Information Commissioner (Ombudsman) with an option for subsequent court review. A noteworthy innovation in the measure is a provision allowing businesses and other records submitters to intervene where the documents they have provided to government agencies are being sought by the public. Final action on the bill is expected before the end of the year.

Australian Action

Official attention to the accessibility of administrative records in Australia began in earnest with the election of a Labour Government in 1972. Legislation did not result, however, until after Malcolm Fraser's Liberal-National Country coalition came to power in 1975. The new regime offered a freedom of information bill in early 1978 and it was referred to committee.

Hearings on the proposal occurred during the autumn, but a report was. not issued until November, 1979. The panel recommended over 90 modifications, all designed to facilitate public access to official records. Senate debate in September, 1980, indicated the Fraser Government was willing to accept some of the proposed changes, but was in disagreement regarding about 50 of them. That same day new general elections were called. The freedom of information bill was introduced again in April of this year. Controversy immediately developed over the failure of the legislation to include committee recommendations still in contention, but compromises shortly were reached and the Senate passed the amended bill in June. Final House adoption is expected.

The Japanese Experience

The Japanese government began exploring public information access policy last year by inaugurating an experimental pilot project along with a formal study. In October, 1980, the majority of the ministries and agencies of the central government simultaneously opened "documents perusal windows" through which public records were made available to the populace upon request. In November, the proposed research endeavor on information access policy was assumed by a temporary national study commission, which is expected to offer final recommendations before the end of 1982.

In Great Britain

In Great Britain, the Labour Partv indicated in its election manifesto of 1974 that it was favorably disposed to freedom of information policy. Two non-commital reports subsequently were issued by the Labour Government. Although the Queen's speech to Parliament in November, 1977, announced reform proposals on information policy would be forthcoming, no legislation resulted. In the summer of 1978, a private research organization, the Outer Circle Policy Unit, produced a comprehensive information access bill. This measure was introduced in the House of Commons the following year as a private member proposal -- i.e. without Labour Government support -- and was about to be referred to committee when that Parliament dissolved.

When a Conservative Government subsequently came to power in the autumn of 1979, the new regime offered a proposal to improve the law protecting official secrets, but appeared to reject legislating any right of public access to administrative records. Sharp debate over the bill was halted as a consequence of an unusual revelation. A book by Andrew Boyle disclosed that Sir Anthony Blunt had confessed to British intelligence authorities in 1964 that he had been a secret agent for the Soviet Union, but he had continued to serve as art adviser to the sovereign, as a knight and a Cambridge fellow after his admission to espionage. The implications for information policy were well stated by one of London's major newspapers: "It is being convincingly claimed that the disclosures and investigations that led to the unmasking of Anthony Blunt would have been impossible had the Government's proposed new legislation on official secrets already become law." The incident apparently has not changed the attitude of the Thatcher regime toward freedom of information policy. When a private member again introduced the Outer Circle Policy Unit model bill early this year, a concerted effort was made by the Conservatives to prevent its referral to committee.

In New Zealand, legislation is expected to be introduced sometime in late summer. This follows an official study by a committee, headed by Sir Alan Danks.

Thus, there is a growing trend among parliamentary democracies around the world to establish a legal right of public access to government records. The American Freedom of Information Act is an important model for these nations in their pursuit of such policy. Indeed, in developing and administering the FOIA, the United States enjoys a leadership role which may be apparent only outside of our own borders.


Harold C Relyea is a specialist in American National Government with the Congressional Research Service, Library of Congress. The views expressed here are those of the author and are not attributable to any other source.

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Updated August 13, 2014