Breadth of Access Laws Discussed at ICIC Meeting

18 September 2013

The potential for access laws to cover corporations, and the rationale for such scope, was discussed Sept. 18 at the conference of information commissioners in Berlin.

Speakers debated increasing access about corporate information, among other topic.

Maeve McDonagh, of University College Cork, said, “The boundaries between the private and public sectors have been increasingly blurred with the outsourcing of government services,” she said. She said this is “an evolving issue that we need to take greater account of.”

Access laws also need to take into account the impact of globalization and the larger roll of international organizations. She also said there is “a growing appetite” for accountability in commercial and economic matters.

Making a series of suggestions, McDonagh said that more information retention systems need to be in place for privatized functions. There is a need for more laws to include public interest override provisions, saying only about half of the FOI laws have such clauses. Also, business should not be allowed to rely on the privacy exemption to withhold information.

“We need to think about exporting FOI out into the private sector,” she said.

Call for More Corporate Transparency

Cobus de Swardt, of Transparency International in South Africa, said there is a dramatic increase in the demand for public accountability by all social actors. More transparency is needed by all actors, and institutions will be transformed with this change. There also is a growing demand for proactive disclosure, he said.

“Rather shocking” is that the details of European Union economic rescue packages are not disclosed, he said.

He emphasized that more transparency is needed about beneficial corporate ownership.  “We have a long way to go to get the basics right.” He praised the OECD standard for procurement transparency and said more information is coming out on corporate tax payments.

“Very worrying” is the use of private companies to provide public services, he said, yet most of these companies remain insulated from public scrutiny.

World Bank Transparency Praised

Klaus-Werner Schmitter, the Executive Director of Germany to the World Bank, said China and other countries needs to be “pushed” to provide more information.

He called the World Bank as “the fastest car” in the pro-transparency race among international organizations. Citing examples of Bank efforts, he said the Bank has released sensitive information such as the rankings of countries on a corruption scale. He called it a “constant struggle” to make sure the World Bank’s Doing Business report is made public.

The Bank still needs to make the decision-making process more open, Schmitter said, noting that recently the Bank reduced the time frame for releasing the minutes of board meetings to 20 years.

De Swardt noted that investors are pressing for greater corporate ownership.

Corporate Concerns

Stephan Wernicke, of the Association of German Chambers of Commerce and Industry, said his organization recently approved a declaration to emphasize that industry must secure its information. Data protection is a priority, he said.

He said companies have many requirements to disclose its information to government, but said “the principle” is that the data of private companies “is private.” Companies don’t want to disclose information such as about its contracts, but that disclosure regarding privatization.

Companies have excessive reporting obligations to government, he said, so much so that consumers “suffer” because they are not longer know what is important to them.

What this is about it “limiting private power,” he said, but all companies should not be treated the same. He listed other laws requiring disclosures, such as in the context of merger and acquisition and data protection laws.

The remedy to economic problems is focused regulation, not the extension of FOI laws, he said.

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