Why businesses have just as much right to use FOI as Joe Public does

Along with the regular moans from councils about journalists using FOI to do research, it’s common to hear grumbles about businesses using it too.

The argument goes like this: “It’s appalling that businesses use FOI to find out information which helps them to do business, and get access to commercial information.”

Until now, I had a degree of sympathy for this argument. After all, if it diverts attention from ‘press should pay’ argument, then that’s good, right?

But I hadn’t really thought about it – until today, when I read this excellent blog post from Paul Bradshaw’s Online Journalism Blog. The argument to knock it down is simple: businesses pay taxes too.

This argument is superficially persuasive, but there are two significant counter-arguments:

  • Firstly, that as taxpayers we have already ‘paid’ for the collection of information held by public authorities and have the right to access that;
  • And secondly that FOI allows citizens to scrutinise how our money is being spent and highlight inefficiencies and abuse.

In other words, even if your argument is purely economic (rather than, say, about democratic accountability), Freedom of Information may save at least as much money as it costs: money which, well, might also be better spent on healthcare, or fixing roads or catching criminals.

Spot on.

Of course, councils which argue that FOI is too expensive tend to be the ones who haven’t worked out that the best way to reduce FOI demand is to be more open in the first place.

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