UK judge says ‘freedom of information’ means choice of digital file format


(Photo by Zachary Korb)

PDFs can be the bane of open government advocates' existence: digital, yes, but often far more difficult to work with than other electronic file formats.

But there is perhaps a bright spot for them over in the United Kingdom.

Back in 2009 and 2010, a man named Nick Innes asked the Buckinghamshire County Council under the 2000 Freedom of Information Act for data regarding student test results. The council rejected his request as overly broad. But in doing so mentioned that it held the test information in a database. Innes pressed and got hold of screen caps of the database.

Innes pressed again, and eventually the council gave him specific details on how the database had been put together, including insight into what type of information the database's headers were referring. He used that information to narrowly tailor what he was asking the council to release in his FOIA request. Eventually the council complied with Innes's retooled information request -- but they did it by releasing 184 pages of PDFs.

Not all file formats are created equal, and so Innes objected. His case worked its way up to the Court of Appeals of England and Wales, the UK's second-highest court, notes Paul McNally on the site Journalism.co.uk. There, Innes won.

"I have not found this point all easy," wrote Lord Justice Nicholas Underhill in his ruling. But, the judge noted, the country's freedom of information laws allow requesters to specify whether they would like their retrieved information presented in hard copy or electronic form.

Wrote Underhill: "Once it is accepted that an applicant can require provision of information in electronic form it seems to me only a small step to hold that he can also choose the format in which that electronic information is provided: the one naturally follows from the other."

If Underhill's ruling holds, it may well be a major arrow in the quiver of open government activists in the United Kingdom. But their colleagues in the United States may have to only look on in envy. Amendments to the Freedom of Information Act passed in 2007 require that federal agencies release data in electronic format upon request. But even that, says Nate Jones, the FOIA coordinator at the National Security Archive at George Washington University, "some agencies are fighting tooth and nail." Specifying exactly which type of file format the data will come is, says Jones,"a big step further than we've gone in the U.S."

Nancy Scola covers technology policy for The Washington Post.
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