Indian Order Sparks Debate on Disclosing Requester Info

30 October 2014

The recent decision by the Indian government to post online the replies to right to information requests is generating debate over whether requester names should be disclosed.

The instruction from the Department of Personnel and Training (DoPT) in an Oct. 21 memorandum did not directly address the disclosure of names issue, but those familiar with the background of the move indicate such disclosure is likely. (See previous FreedomInfo.org report.) Government departments were told to begin implementing the guidance on Oct. 31.

Revealing names could lead to more attacks on RTI activists, according to Venkatesh Nayak, programme coordinator at the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative, who is quoted in an article in The Times of India by Lubna Kably and Anahita Mukherji. Some 42 RTI activists have been murdered and over 300 assaulted, according to Nayak.

Disagreeing, Shailesh Gandhi, a former Central Information Commissioner, said, “Responses to RTI queries are public documents. Information should be denied only as per exemptions in the Act and no general exemption can be sought for the names of RTI applicants.”

“Everyone who takes on powerful interests, whether or not they use RTI, put themselves in danger. Why should RTI activists have separate protection? We are trying to create better systems for all and not create a new class of VIPs,” he told the Times of India.

“If very sensitive information is asked for we are aware of the fact that it is usually not provided by the PIO and during the process of appeals the applicant’s name is leaked to the affected party. Unfortunately, this will continue irrespective of whether peoples’ names are on government websites. A very few (probably less than 1% to 2%) do use RTI to harass officers or get a favour. Displaying the RTIs would deter them,” he says.

The newspaper spoke with a few officials from various ministries, reporting ambiguously that they “agree that a clarification regarding disclosure of the applicant’s name would be helpful.”

Uploading all RTI applications and responses is recommended in a recent report Peoples Monitoring of the RTI regime in India-2011-2013, prepared by RTI Assessment and Advocacy Group (RaaG) and Samya-Centre for Equity Studies (CES). (See previous FreedomInfo.org article.)

One of the authors, Amrita Johri, pointed out to FreedomInfo.org that the memorandum on uploading of RTI queries and responses was issued to ensure compliance with the guidelines.

Order Stems from Earlier Guidelines

In 2013, the DoPT came out with a set of guidelines on suo motu disclosures. The guidelines were based on recommendations made by a committee consisting of government representatives and RTI activists.

One of the recommendations in the guidelines was:

1.4.1 All Public Authorities shall proactively disclose RTI applications and appeals received and their responses, on the websites maintained by Public Authorities with search facility based on key words. RTI applications and appeals received and their responses relating to the personal information of an individual may not be disclosed, as they do not serve any public interest.

Johri explained that the DoPT order applies to all RTI applications and responses related to the central government ministries and departments. The “responses,” she continued, “should include the actual documents provided in response to the RTI and not just the reply. All requests (except those which relate to private matters and no public interest is served) would be uploaded and should be made available to people visiting the website. Of course, the real test will be if its uploaded in a searchable database with keyword searches since it will be valuable only if relevant information can be easily retrieved.”

Commenting on the concerns about disclosure of names and addresses of information seekers, Johri said:

While it would be ideal if the names and addresses were blacked out, given the huge number of RTIs it might not be practical. Further, names and addresses of appellants are available on the website of the Information Commissions and the under the RTI Act itself names of beneficiaries etc. have to be disclosed proactively. Also, the discourse on data protection in India is still in its infancy- the electoral rolls are available online for all to see- displaying names, addresses and even photographs of all registered voters in India!

Some questions remain about the practical impact of the order, with one nongovernmental expert telling FreedomInfo.org that at least in the short term it is likely will be used  only for requests filed online, a small proportion of all RTI requests.

Court Order Noted

A Jan. 6 ruling by a Calcutta high court has been raised, but that order held that applicants need not disclose any personal details while filing RTI queries other than their post office (PO) box numbers.

Government bodies could request personal details if necessary to fulfill the request, the court said, but would have to keep the information confidential.

The high court order, unlike that of the Supreme Court, is not binding on the DoPT.

International Practice Varies

A January 2014 FreedomInfo.org report found that request letters are themselves disclosable in many jurisdictions, but the names of the requesters are commonly kept confidential, according to a FreedomInfo.org sampling of practices in a dozen countries.

In July, the United Kingdom’s Information Commissioner’s Office recently said the names of FOI requesters should be kept private, but not always. (See previous FreedomInfo.org report.)

In a June decision in a case filed by FreedomInfo.org, three outside experts who decide appeals at the World Bank said it violated its access to information policy by not releasing request letters. The Bank now releases letters, but not the names of requesters. (See previous FreedomInfo.org report.) The Bank proactively discloses summaries of the requests, as does the Asian Development Bank.

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