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November 20, 2019updated 30 Sep 2022 8:36am

Information Commissioner promises to ‘step in’ over ‘misuse’ of data protection laws to block accountability

By Freddy Mayhew

The UK Information Commissioner has said her office deals with some 6,500 appeals a year over failed freedom of information requests, but could handle more.

Denham encouraged journalists to “bring appeals to our office” if bodies subject to the FOI Act fail to respond to requests, which the act says should be answered within 20 working days.

She also went further, calling for the FOI Act to be extended to include private government contractors.

“So [many] Government services are delivered by outsourced companies that are not subject to freedom of information,” Denham told a media conference.

“I think that is a significant issue and we have called for the law to be extended to outsourced and contracted providers who are delivering our ordinary everyday public services.”

Earlier this year a Liberal Democrat peer pledged to introduce a Private Member’s Bill to extend the FOI Act to private contractors working for public bodies if Boris Johnson failed to update the law in his first Parliamentary session as Prime Minister.

Denham described 2018 as the “year that data protection went mainstream” following Observer and Channel 4 News reports exposing large-scale Facebook data harvesting by Cambridge Analytica.

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But she told the Society of Editors annual conference last week that concerns about the use of data protection laws to silence reporting had not broken out from the news industry itself.

“It’s something that I have heard from all of you,” she said, “but the volumes of case law don’t actually bear that out.

“So I’m thinking it’s more of a fear than an actuality that data protection is the new libel or defamation… but there’s always been a tension between privacy and freedom of expression.

“Both [are] very important rights, neither unassailable, so it’s important to remember that.”

However she said she had seen examples of data protection laws being “misused or used as an excuse not to turn over records that subject a public body to accountability”.

She said the UK Information Commissioner’s Office would “step in” if and when that happened, adding: “We need to hear about that.”

She went on: “And for all you editors out there, if your journalists run up against that, that’s an abuse of the law and it needs to be corrected and we are happy to step in and do that.”

Denham, who was appointed Information Commissioner in July 2016, said she saw freedom of information and data protection as “two sides of the same coin” – both are overseen by her office.

She added: “My greatest concern in being a regulator at this time of digital revolution is I worry that we have lost authoritative objective sources and that’s a massive impact on our society and it’s a hit to the public who struggle to keep the powerful to account.”

The Canadian national said she thought people could “not always tell the difference between journalism and mediated news and clickbait” and that this was a “significant issue”.

“At the same time government records have become ephemeral. Government decision-making by Whatsapp is not a way to have a fulsome record of what’s actually happening,” she said.

“I worry about people not being able to understand what’s happening online, so I think digital citizenry is really important.”

Picture: Society of Editors

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