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Freedom of information is for businesses too | Heather Brooke

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. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2011 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds