November 11, 2013

How to sabotage freedom of information requests in the Netherlands

Filed under: General by Branko Collin @ 10:51 am

Two angry blog posts in as many months show the state of freedom of information in the Netherlands. Long story short, the government wants everybody to be transparent except themselves.

In the past year political blog Sargasso directed 30 or so freedom of information requests at all levels of government. Their report of how they fared (the first court victories are expected next year) reads like a how-to for civil servants—how to sabotage freedom of information requests:

  • Be late in everything you do.
  • Split requests into multiple parts and reject them all separately.
  • Send ten-page-long rejection letters full of legalese.
  • Let the complaints committee reject the inevitable complaints.
  • Once forced by a court of law, redact the information you return to the point of illegibility.
  • Wash, rinse, repeat.

Dealing with all of these things takes time and money, of which the state possesses infinitely more than the average citizen or reporter.

Sargasso also noted that they had no troubles at all with FOI requests for non-sensitive subjects (e.g. how many restaurant permits does a city have). Only once they started digging into things like the presumably fraudulent past of the former mayor of Helmond, Fons Jacobs, did they run into a wall.

In August the Retecool blog made minced meat out of the argument that the fines governments have to pay for refusing to perform their legal duties were too high and the result of systemic fraud. Both the Vereniging Nederlandse Gemeenten (Association of Dutch municipalities) and Minister of the Interior Ronald Plasterk had argued as much.

Retecool (a not always SFW blog) pointed out that many municipalities only had to pay one or just a few fines in 2012 which hardly points to systemic abuse. The few cases where abuse seemed real ended up before the courts who had no troubles finding for the municipalities when the facts warranted it. The city of Eindhoven (200,000 inhabitants) paid the highest amount of fines of any place in the Netherlands. The 119,060 euro in fines they paid last year were for all requests they failed to process in time, not just FOI requests. Retecool contrasts this to the severance packages the city handed to its former employees, which was 150,000 euro in just the first 9 months of 2012. The blog contrasts Eindhoven’s fines with the cost of The Hague’s new year’s party, 125,000 euro in 2013. Sounds to me like the fines may not be high enough.

See also: No fees for freedom of information requests says Dutch Supreme Court

(Photo of the closed city of Severomorsk in Russia by Sergej Shinkarjuk, some rights reserved)

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February 9, 2013

No fees for freedom of information requests says Dutch Supreme Court

Filed under: General by Branko Collin @ 5:05 pm

Municipalities can only charge fees for personal services and responding to a freedom of information request is not such a service because it serves a common good.

That is the conclusion the Dutch Supreme Court reached yesterday.

In the past years municipalities often charged considerable fees for dealing with freedom of information requests in order to derail the process. RTL Nieuws refused to pay these fees and was sued by several local governments in reponse. According to De Nieuwe Reporter the municipality of Landgraaf lost its case, but Leerdam won. The Supreme Court was asked to provide clarity.

Municipalities can still charge fees for the form in which it responds to a freedom of information request (WOB-verzoek in Dutch), i.e. for photocopies and such. The Supreme Court made a point of mentioning this even though nobody had contested the issue.

Reporter Brenno de Winter sees the verdict as a starting point to get his money back: “It took me hundreds of hours to get rid of these fees. This lost time represents a lot of money to a freelancer like me. I am going to ask back fees that I had already paid and charge the municipalities for the time I lost. […] I am also studying options to criminally charge four civil servants because they threatened me with costs [of up to 30,000 euro] if I were to persevere with my information requests.”

De Winter was declared Journalist of the Year 2011 by the Dutch Association of Journalists NVJ because of his scoops concerning the bad security of both the OV transport card and government websites.

(Photo of journalist Brenno de Winter by Roy van Ingen, some rights reserved)

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December 26, 2011

Postcodes and road maps liberated in the Netherlands

Filed under: General by Branko Collin @ 5:27 pm

It took a couple of lawsuits to put their prospective gatekeepers into place, but both the Dutch postal code data and the Dutch road map data have been set free.

Postcodes used to be determined by the Dutch PTT, and when the company privatized they somehow started claiming ownership. When the government started handing out postcodes for free through its kadaster (land registration office), the new company now called sued them, and lost. The judge has determined that starting February 2012, everybody may use the postcode database for free, Gelderlander writes.

Similarly map makers Falkplan lost a lawsuit against the government where the latter published map data via freedom of information requests, Arnoud Engelfriet writes. Falkplan’s angle seems to have been to disallow competition, plain and simple.

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May 9, 2011

Dutch freedom of information process ‘slowest in the world’

Filed under: General,IT by Branko Collin @ 10:49 am

A report by the Dutch Association of Journalists (NVJ) claims the Dutch government is the slowest in the world in processing freedom of information requests. FOI consultant Rob Vleugels pointed out to Binnenlands Bestuur that Dutch ministries typically only employ four civil servants each for dealing with the requests. In comparison, the UK employs at least 80 people per ministry for this task. The British, unlike the Dutch, also train their people for doing FOI work.

Journalist Brenno de Winter thinks the problems with the execution of the FOI law centre around an incompetent government when it comes to IT.

Recently I had to wait 56 days for three photocopies. I had asked to receive the copies digitally, but they were incapable of doing so.

The citizens now foot the bill for bad automation. For years I have tried to uncover the extent of the problem, but the government is actively sabotaging me. They send me bills despite the courts telling them that such things is illegal, they take much more time to respond than they are allowed to, they claim national security issues, and they sometimes even just refuse to respond.

The Freedom of information act is called WOB in Dutch (Wet Openbaarheid Bestuur), and making a WOB request is called wobbing.

(Photo by Dennis Macwilliam, some rights reserved)

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May 11, 2010

Journalist wins lawsuit over freedom of information request costs

Filed under: General by Branko Collin @ 11:00 am

Municipalities are not allowed to charge for complying with freedom of information requests, a court in The Hague found according to Trouw.

Reporter Brenno de Winter sought a judge’s legally binding opinion after several municipalities conspired early last year to sabotage his freedom of information requests by making him pay for them. The court reasoned that since freedom of information requests are for the good of everyone instead of the good of an individual, asking money for complying with them is illegal. However, government organisations can still charge money for the cost of photocopies.

Last week, De Winter started a lawsuit against the Minister of Transport, Camiel Eurlings, for keeping documents secret that could help explain the relative failure of the public transport chip card (the Dutch “Oyster card”).

See also: Supply the poor government with some much needed transparency

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May 30, 2009

Supply the poor government with some much needed transparency

Filed under: General,Online by Branko Collin @ 7:15 pm

Brenno de Winter needs your money to force the government to become transparent. On June 11, he will organize a benefit in Amsterdam of which the proceeds will go to this war chest.

During his recent attempts to figure out how many local governments are using so-called Free and Open Software, several of these governments have been actively conspiring to thwart De Winter’s efforts. They ‘forgot’ to send some of the required documents, billed him for their time, and 22 municipalities and three provinces outright refused him the documents they are obliged to send, forcing him to start a separate law suit against each one of them.

De Winter expects costs to run up to EUR 7,000, an amount he is unable to cough up himself. If you can spare some cash, you can send some his way to bank account 4241287 c/o Stichting Vrijschrift in Workum. You can also visit the benefit event at the Pick-up Club at the NDSM wharf in Amsterdam, which starts at 5:30 pm on Thursday, June 11, and which features an introduction to WOBing by De Winter, and a debate about transparency between journalists, hackers and civil servants.

I am an adviser to the Stichting Vrijschrift (Scriptum Libre in English) and can tell you they are legit. Their only weakness is their unwillingness to toot their own horn, so let me list some of their feats:

  • Instrumental in defeating software patents in the EU
  • Acquired financing for GPS devices for the Dutch chapter of Open Street Map
  • Working to convince the government of the benefits of open educational materials, such as text books that any teacher can edit and improve.

(More info at Iusmentis (Dutch). About the picture, is it normal that spray bottles like this one have an extra grip for a sixth finger?)

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March 26, 2009

Dutch municipalities reticent to comply with freedom of information act

Filed under: General by Branko Collin @ 11:34 am

Several municipalities have not only refused to comply with a WOB request (Dutch freedom of information act), but are actively discussing with each other how to frustrate the process. Webwereld reports this (Dutch) where Brenno de Winter is trying to find find out in how far municipalities are using Free and Open Source software.

On a closed mailing list, the municipality of Boekel (Noord Brabant) pointed out that not only would these WOB requests generate a lot of work, but also have “far reaching consequences,” whatever they may be. Boxtel and Schijndel, also from Noord Brabant, apparently replied that they too have received “nonsensical questions.” One of the suggestions was to hire an IT savvy lawyer. The name of Arnoud Engelfriet, formerly of Eindhoven, Noord Brabant, was dropped, who told Webwereld that he has no interest taking a job that “endangers a citizen’s right to freedom of information.”

In the meantime, De Winter has been replying in Webwereld’s comment section, and he seems to be suggesting that most municipalities that have responded, have done so in a positive manner: “[…] several municipalities have answered already. […] My phone is ringing all the time, and every time we manage to get to get a positive outcome.”

A 2008 informal study by journalist Jeroen Trommelen (Dutch) revealed that of 51 WOB requests sent to several ministries, only one came from an actual journalist.

Disclaimer: according to Webwereld De Winter’s WOB requests were made on behalf of him and the Vrijschrift foundation. I am an advisor to the latter.

Photo by Mark Crossfield, some rights reserved.

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