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Declaration on Parliamentary Openness [Draft Commentary]

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Title IV - Making Parliamentary Information Easily Accessible

Sec. 34. Ensuring Free Access

Parliamentary information shall be available to citizens for access and reuse free of charge.

Parliamentary information should be free; it should not be limited only to those few who can afford to pay. Principles for open data put forth by the Sunlight Foundation explain that, “Imposing fees for access skews the pool of who is willing (or able) to access information. It also may preclude transformative uses of the data that in turn generates business growth and tax revenues.”[1] 

This is a nearly universal standard adopted by countries which have Freedom of Information laws and rules regarding the release of parliamentary information. A joint study group convened by the CPA and WBI[2] provided the benchmark that “Costs for access to information should not be so high as to deter requesters,” stating that “requesters only have to pay for the cost of reproducing the information,” with exceptions made for those unable to pay.[3] The Open Knowledge Foundation and Access Info Europe explain that “the prevailing standard is that submitting information requests is free of charge, as is the inspection of original documents and the receipt of information by electronic means. The norm is that only legitimate charges that may be made are for providing copies of information (photocopies, copies on discs) and for delivering these copies (postal charges).”[4] A newly adopted European Union law establishes the principle that public institutions should not be able to charge more than the marginal cost triggered by a data request; specifically, information must be free with the exception that only “the cost of producing and sending copies may be charged to the applicant.”[5] The EU clarified the new law with the statement that, “In practice this means most data will be offered for free or virtually for free unless duly justified.”[6]

Most countries with freedom of information laws have put this standard into practice. New Zealand’s Data and Information Management Principles state that, “Use and re-use of government held data and information is expected to be free. Charging for access is discouraged. Pricing to cover the costs of dissemination is only appropriate where it can be clearly demonstrated that this pricing will not act as a barrier to the use or re-use of the data. If a charge is applied for access to data, it should be transparent, consistent, reasonable and the same cost to all requestors.”[7] The standards put forth by the House of Representatives in Brazil echoes this sentiment: “[D]ata is available to the greatest possible scope of users and to the greatest possible scope of purposes.”[8] In the limited circumstances where it may be necessary to charge a fee to recover costs in collecting or copying parliamentary information, any charge should not exceed the additional marginal cost of distribution to that citizen and should not be used to deter requests for information.

[1] Sunlight Foundation, Ten Principles for Opening up Government Information, 2012, Accessed, 5/14/2012.

[2] CPA-WBI, Recommendations for Transparent Governance, Conclusions of a CPA-WBI Study Group on Access to Information, Held in partnership with the Parliament of Ghana, Accra, Ghana, 5-9 July 2004. Accessed 6/11/2012.

[3] Ibid., Sections 5.1, 5.1a

[4] Access Info Europe and Open Knowledge Foundation, Beyond Access: The Right to (Re)Use Public Information, 7 Jan 2011, p. 74.

[5] Public access to European Parliament, Council and Commission documents, P7_TA-PROV0580, A7-0426/2011, Rapporteur: Michael Cashman, 4

[6] European Commision Press Release, Digital Agenda: Turning Government Data into Gold, Accessed 5/18/2012.

[7] Government ICT Directions and Priorities, New Zealand Data and Information Management Principles, 2011, Accessed 4/24/2012.  

[8] Brazilian Chamber of Deputies, Dados Abertos da Camara dos Deputados (Open Data from the Chamber of Deputies), 2011, p. 2.