Article: Freedom of Information and big business

Freedom of information is for businesses too
Guardian, 1/2 September 2011

Is scientific research endangered by Philip Morris’s freedom of information request? Not when we all benefit

A request by tobacco giant Philip Morris International to the University of Stirling has reignited concern about the use of freedom of information laws. The data it was interested in was collected as part of a survey of teenagers and smoking carried out by the university’s Centre for Tobacco Control Research.

The UK’s FoI law is meant to be applicant blind. This means anyone can ask a public body for official information and there should be no discrimination based on the identity of the person asking. In the case of scientific research conducted and funded in the public’s name, there is a strong argument that the underlying data and methodology should be disclosed. It is precisely this transparency that grants research reports their status as robust investigations.

Some universities, however, are balking. Stirling is one of nine universities that form the UK Centre for Tobacco Control Studies, and is the premier research institute for investigating smoking behaviour. It receives funding from the Department of Health and its findings are used to formulate anti-smoking laws. So it’s probably no surprise that Philip Morris is interested in its data. The tobacco company made its first FoI request anonymously through the London law firm Clifford Chance in September 2009. It put in a further two FoI requests in its own name: all seeking underlying data and methodology for the centre’s report, which was called “Point of Sale Display of Tobacco Products”. In particular, it sought information from a survey entitled “Cancer Research UK CTCR survey of adolescents’ reactions to tobacco marketing” which was referred to in the introduction to the report.

The university provided some data but refused the bulk by claiming the requester was time-wasting. It would have been better off dealing with the request openly and using those exemptions in the FoI law which protect privacy or expending excessive resources. Instead, its appeal to the Scottish information commissioner was rejected. This is not the first time a university has tried to hide from FoI. The University of East Anglia breached the Freedom of Information Act when handling requests by climate change sceptics (the university escaped prosecution because the case came to light outside the six-month time limit for cases to be brought).

Other universities claim researchers will feel inhibited or endangered if forced to reveal their methodology or primary data. This strikes me as unlikely. The arguments reveal a discomfort with the higher level of accountability that exists in the digital age. There are plenty of exemptions in the FoI law for genuine issues of cost, privacy and confidentiality. Stirling’s attempt to refuse the request, calling it “vexatious”, smacks of fear. The research in question is funded with public money and conducted in the public’s name. These reports often go on to become cornerstones in creating new legislation, so we should be allowed to interrogate the underlying facts.

Several FoI officers complain it’s unfair to the taxpayer to provide such data to a rich company like Philip Morris. Indeed there may well be concerns about what Philip Morris will do with the data, but if it’s available to all then we can see for ourselves if any attempt is made to “spin” it.

In the US, businesses are one of the biggest users of FoI and new industries are built on this universal access to official data. The ability to use and re-use official government data is a factor behind the remarkable growth of the US knowledge economy. The satellite navigation industry grew out of free GPS data obtained from the US government.

There’s a unique anti-business attitude in Europe in relation to FoI. Prof James Boyle of Duke University Law School told me: “European attitudes towards private commercialisation actually work against the idea of openness. In the US if the government hands out weather data for free and people make a ton of money off the back of it, everyone says, ‘Great! it’s good for the economy, good for us, good for the company’ … In Britain there’s a sense that the company has got something for free and now they’re making money out of it. ‘How terrible! They’re free-riding.’ They don’t see the overall economic benefit that comes from sharing information.”

I’m in favour of businesses using FoI. Not simply because business people are members of the public but because once businesses – with their bigger budgets and legal departments – start using FoI, we might see the law have some real bite.

7 Responses to “Article: Freedom of Information and big business”

  1. rippon says:

    “once businesses – with their bigger budgets and legal departments – start using FoI, we might see the law have some real bite.”

    That’s a chilling comment to conclude with. It basically asserts that big business, not ordinary citizens, will determine the shape of the law, e.g. what is/isn’t enforced, e.g. certain FoI requests and not others.

    That is why this is a troubling basis on which to welcome, as Heather Brooke does, the contribution by big business to freeing up information.

  2. Josef from WA ST, USA says:

    rippon, I make the argument that:

    a) Citizens have equal access under FOI

    b) Corporations are people who work together for common goals & objectives – yes, that’s true… Corporations pay taxes as do people. Tax money pays for something, the data should most likely be… public.

    c) Freedom is not free. Somebody like Ed Macy must guard it in a WAH-64 Apache over Afghan skies, some copper must put behind bars the rapist, some wonderful people must fight fires & protect the environment, some more wonderful folks must regulate the free market and some brave Americans must simply put export freedom to quench the world drought… and somebody must pay the taxes for that. Freedom is NOT free.

  3. rippon says:

    “Freedom is NOT free.”

    So you’re echoing my point: freedom will accrue mostly to those with the most purchasing power (because, as you yourself emphasise – freedom is not free, “somebody must pay”).

    Information is not free either, as Heather Brooke makes abundantly clear in her ‘Silent State’.

    The issue in this instance is freedom of research information. The problem here is that Philip Morris (PM) will have its own body of scientific research, which will inform its marketing strategies, which, since it’s a tobacco company, will be very damaging to the public. And there is a chilling imbalance of power: PM thinks that, under FoI rules, it can rightfully demand access to university (publicly-funded) research; but any university wishing to investigate the practices of tobacco companies cannot demand access to corporate (privately-funded) research.

    Heather Brooke is effectively cheering this state of affairs. But that, then, is a contradiction in her outlook – because she was very angry in ‘Silent State’ about information being the preserve of the rich and powerful.

  4. Josef from WA ST, USA says:

    rippon;

    True, very true that Philip Morris in a perfect world would be denied this data because tobacco sucks. But if we start blacking out FOI to certain people or groups, then ALL of our freedom is endangered and we too are entitled to the university’s data. I read “The Silent State” too…

    Of course there is the option of another round of class-action litigation against Philip Morris as well…

    FOI is NOT a partisan issue. Don’t let it become one the way abortion, social services, unions, the like have become.

  5. rippon says:

    I’m not suggesting that Philip Morris (PM) FoI requests should be denied.

    I’m pointing out that, according to the FoI rules (as I understand them from Heather Brooke (HB)), PM has a right to Stirling University’s research but the converse does not apply – because Stirling’s research is publicly funded whereas PM’s is not.

    HB ought to address this chilling imbalance of power: Stirling is (rightly) accountable for its actions, but PM is not – at least in terms of transparency applied to their respective research. HB is effectively championing big business’ ‘right to know’ about public bodies, but apparently overlooking the public’s right to know about the activities of private corporations.

  6. Josef from WA ST, USA says:

    rippon, I see what you’re saying. But business is people. People are entitled to privacy, not gov’t. It’s all about whether one believes in lefty Big Government or righty free enterprise governance.

  7. rippon says:

    “business is people”

    That’s completely wrong – because business is very much the government: a scandal which, unlike the relatively piffling issue of MPs’ expenses, is never splashed across the front pages is the lobbying power of big business – its power to bend government policy to its will. (Another dimension to the scandal is the revolving door between big business and government, e.g. former/future ministers of state revolving between government and corporate executive positions.)

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