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Monday, February 12, 2007

Media battle over FOI fee reduction, even in US

We may have overstated how simple and straightforward the US Federal Freedom of Information law is when it comes to fee waiver or reduction for applications by news gatherers - see our item below on 8 February "Media shouldn't cop this lying down".

Harry Hammit the respected US expert, in a comment towards the end of Rick Snell's post about the Peatling/Sydney Morning Herald Administrative Decisions Tribunal, points out that there are a range of issues that still crop up about the interpretation and application of the waiver provisions. One of the current ones concerns fee reduction or waiver for independent news gatherers, including bloggers.

Another is that individual agency policy varies significantly. For example the CIA has proposed a new rule on processing fees that has attracted strong criticism from, among others, the National Security Archive, a not for profit foreign policy research institute at George Washington University (see "CIA proposed rule on FOIA fees would burden requesters and the agency"). The Archive has twice previously taken the CIA to court over fee processing issues.

The US statement about fee waiver or reduction for those who bring to public attention information about the workings of government is still crystal clear and suitably broad compared to the convoluted test here, as now interpreted by the Administrative Decisions Tribunal.


  1. MajorCynic8:44 pm

    I find this one a bit hard to take. Any chimp can call himself a journalist, and many do. To give a discretionary benefit to a self-described class strikes me as a bit open-ended.

    It doesn't matter all that much if the "reporter" is making money for Rupert or Jamie or playing the world's finest song on the world's least-read blog. They're all asking for a handout.

    FOI is massively subsidised already, at considerable cost to the agencies that have to deal with it, their other clients and the taxpayer in general. (The AG's FOI annual report probably has some numbers,which will (of course) be an underestimate). The amount of subsidy available to an agency (total real cost less total charged and rcovered) is not unlimited and it has to be shared between applicants, even if no-one admits this. I can't imagine DVA, say, feeling bad about processing the records for 1000 diggers quickly rather than using the same resource to set up a possible story for the Oz, that Citizen Murdoch may want never to run.

    Anyone who wants any other service from government (a driver's licence, a building approval, a passport) has to pay for it, so it's hardly unreasonable to expect FOI applicants to get a free ride on the back of the rest of us.

    If journalists, mostly meaning the major media, were a bit more credible, it would be a bit easier to take. But they only run stuff that helps their bosses' business interests, or their bosses' favoured political party, or nothing at all from information that cost the taxpayer a bundle to provide. By and large, they're a joke. And the pity with the bloggers and the minority and specialist media is that hardly anyone reads it.

    Here's a suggestion. Split the personal information stuff away from FOI and charge for it at concessional rates if at all. Make lots of taxpayers happy. Put in a vexatious test to control the odd timewasters. Charge for the other stuff - policy, high level administration, commercial - at full cost recovery, so that those looking for something think in a focused way about what they want and value it appropriately rather than committing arboreal mass murder with the aid of a photocopier. Applicants would also be more inclined to demand better service if they were paying a proper price. A more expensive service, but I am pretty sure it would be a better one.

  2. Way too much cynicism here, MajorCynic.

    The media – and others who act as proxies – to bring to pubic attention information about the workings of government, shouldn’t have to overcome cost barriers of the kind encountered in the Peatling case. The modelling used in the development of the Welfare to Work policy, and information generally used for government decision making, should be made available as a matter of routine. Public money has been used to gather and analyse such information in the first place. Making it available to others who seek to hold government to account for its decisions shouldn’t result in a $13,000 bill. The FOI Act was never meant to be a cost recovery exercise but we seem to be moving significantly in the direction of the applicant paying something closer to full freight.