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Letters This week we've seen some serious debate about the freedom of information act. We ran a this story outlining the concerns the Federation of Small Business have about the impact the act will have on its members. As can sometimes happen some of you felt there was more to the story than the FSB suggested:

Companies are not covered by the FOI Act unless they are nationalised, or wholly owned by a public authority, or carry out functions on behalf of a public authority to the extent that the Secretary of State designates them as being a public authority for the purposes of the Act - which he cannot do without consulting them and getting parliamentary approval (see sections 3, 5, 6 and 7 of the Act here

The Act gives people the right to access information held by public authorities (as defined by the Act), not private companies. However, where information about private companies is held by a public authority, such as in a regulatory capacity, it is subject to a number of exemptions from the public's right of access. This protects information whose disclosure would cause commercial prejudice (s. 43) or information supplied in confidence (s.41), to name just two exemptions.

What companies are concerned about is that information they supply to government might be disclosed without their permission. But the guidance on the Act prepared by the Information Commissioner and the Department for Constitutional Affairs makes it quite clear that authorities should consult companies wherever possible before taking decisions to disclose information like this (see para 31 onwards of the s.45 Code of Practice here

So, the FSB's concern boils down to two things: when consulted by a public authority which has received a request for information, having to reach a decision relatively quickly on whether the disclosure of the information they have supplied to an authority will cause any real harm to their business; and the fact that they won't have the final say as to whether any embarrassing (but commercially harmless) information might be disclosed. 

One only has to think of the lobbying done by companies of government departments and other public authorities (either in relation to contracts, proposed or existing regulations or laws, or prior to seeking planning permission) to come up with an example of why this sort of information should not be released solely at the discretion of the company concerned, or even of the authority in question.

In terms of struggling for resources to cope, companies simply need to keep accurate records of what information they have supplied to which public authority, so that when consulted by the authority they can reach a quick decision. I would have thought that this is neither rocket science, nor terribly onerous. One would have thought that it would be good business practice to do just that as a matter of course.

The Act does not give private companies outside the scope of the Act any power to charge for administrative costs incurred when liaising with public authorities seeking their views over whether information should be disclosed. Only companies which are covered by the Act may do so, since they are public authorities for the purposes of the Act.

What the FSB also ignore is the opportunities the Act offers them and their members. The FSB itself will be better able to get information on policy making by government which will affect its members, empowering them to lobby against 'red tape' and for business-friendly policies more effectively. Companies will be able to use the Act to find out more about forthcoming tendering opportunities and to check that they - and their competitors - are being properly regulated. This in turn leads to a higher standard of public administration and more competitive awarding of contracts. Countless examples of this exist from other countries with FOI Acts.

Andrew


I am the author of 'Your Right to Know', a practitioner's guide to the Freedom of Information Act and other access laws to be published by Pluto Press this November. I am suprised that your article includes no comment from a consumer or public rights organisation countering these completely one-sided claims made by the Federation of Small Businesses.

The UK has had one of the longest lead times in world (over four years) to prepare for implementation of its FOIA. It is also one of the last industrialised countries in the world to recognise in law the public's 'right to know'. And all this for a law which in comparison to other countries' FOI laws, such as the USA, is embarrrassingly weak and stuffed full of vague exemptions. The American economy seems to operate quite successfully even under its much stronger FOI law. In fact, businesses are the main user of the FOIA in America.

The UK's FOIA finally gives the public some small right to find out how public authorities are spending their money. Surely the public have a right to know this? If business are open and transparent about what they're charging a public authority then there is no extra cost involved. Complications and cost come about when the business wants to keep information secret. There are quite clear exemptions for trade secret information, so what we're talking about here isn't businesses' fear of losing their competitive edge but rather their fear of being held acccountable to the public for the first time.

The role of a journalist is not simply to print press releases from corporate organisations making bogus claims, but to question their veracity by talking to other parties. If you had asked the Consumers Association, Campaign for Freedom of Information or myself, you would have found a very different perception about the Freedom of Information Act.

Regards, Heather Brooke


Interesting letter next about applications of speech-to-text technology that are not always given the most prominent consideration. We are all very happy to imagine fantasy worlds where we command our computers as though we were sitting on a Star Trek set, but in reality, speech recognition can be more than just a labour-saving gizmo:

Regarding your article entitled "Speech recognition 'on a chip' in three years," while I can appreciate the approaches taken by the NSF to push this technology forward in an attempt to revolutionize security and emergency services, I really would like to see if they would put some emphasis on communication services for deaf individuals.

Being deaf myself, and having to rely either on tty - to - voice relay and voice - carry - over services, or tty - to - tty communication on slow chunky machines, the ability to communicate with hearing individuals with the assitance of voice recognition would vastly improve the quality of life for people like me.

There are countless deaf individuals like myself, who profess the ability to communicate verbally with clear, concise speech, and no barriers restricting who you we communicate with would be a godsend.

voice relay services are nortoriously slow, and in some places not even reachable due to too many customers wanting the services of too few relay operators. Where I live , in British Columbia, sometimes a wait of 10 to 15 minutes just to GET to an operator is not uncommon.

I'd love the ability to simply call any hearing person I wished, knowing that their speech would be automatically recognized and translated into text for me without having to rely on outside assitance.

I can only hope that perhaps this technology is succesfful enough and gets enough recognition to warrant researching these options. The advent of text-to-text messaging from virtually anywhere in the world has vastly improved the ability for the deaf to communicate with the hearing world. Taking it another step with voice-to-text would be wonderful.

Sincerely

Dy Stone


Feelings about Wikipedia run pretty high amoung supporters and detractors alike, as we saw in a recent letters page. This first response summed it up perfectly, for Orlowski, our intrepid US editor:

Give them Segways!

Cheers, and another pint of the stale pale ale with the foam on the bottom for the Wiki's! (My apologies to Old Frothingschloss.)

john


I don't understand why we need a wikipedia (or is that wikipoedia) when we have the Hitch-Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy - The Guide to Life, The Universe and Everything (http://www.h2g2.com) - particularly as the wikipedia does not contain an entry for The Hanger Lane Gyratory System?

Best Regards

Robert Ladyman

Indeed. Even the most ardent of Wiki fans, surely, would have to admit that it is a catastrophic failure on the part of any depository of information claiming equal status with an encyclopaedia to have overlooked the Hanger Lane Gyratory System.

For those unfamiliar with this wonder of modern road systems: consider yourselves lucky. Think of a traffic jam, Escher's drawings and Heisenberg's uncertainty principle all brought together and realised in asphalt. You are almost there.


Picture messaging next, and our readers dispense advice to the mobilephonecos: To make money, you must think like a child...

Why don't they just come here and observe how people use it? Not by wandering around in suits of course, They'd have to get "into" peoples' lives to observe the usages which people wouldn't necessarily tell a complete stranger about.

Teenage girls advertising their "wares" on mailing lists, for example. Sending a picture of yourselves on the skislopes to the person who couldn't make it. "Look at the stupid thing my cat is doing, isn't it cute?" Basically, stuff that no-one would ever dream of storing, stuff which depends on the instant-ness because it won't seem half so interesting a day later or even an hour later.

Which also depends on the user interface being really intuitive. And building a user interface which is intuitive really goes against the grain for programmers with logical minds, because you have to do really illogical things like make the same button do completely unrelated things in different contexts. Any notions of a "consistent" user interface need to be thrown out of the window, and replaced with ideas like "the thing the user is most often going to want to do next should be assigned to the big button in the middle" Which is why I cannot learn how to use the picture-features on my phone, but my 11-year old son can.

If the mobile phone network people can't learn to think like that, they deserve to lose shedloads of readies.

James


Orlowski upsetting the readers again, this time with his remarks about the perils of soap dropping:

Blimey Andrew - working in one of the US' most famous gay landmarks you ought to know that "moustache = gay man" went out with The Village People. You would not be making offensive remarks about people's ethnic origin, so please refrain from the sort of lazy homophobia expressed in your article.

Matthew Marks


You have sent in some splendid alternative explanations for the lethargic behaviour of the Pioneer Probes:

My theories regarding what's happening to the probes are much better (and will probably be backed up by some dude at www.enterprisemission.com who'll find evidence to back me up after he's colour enhanced pictures of Mars, the Moon and Ehypt);

They (the probes) going to bump into a black wall that's got lots of lights and stuff and we'll discover that our whole of human history has been one long-running Rality-TV show for a bunch of sad alien students to watch between lectures.

Or maybe the probes are being dragged toward a robot planet where they will be rebuilt with AI and will return in a bigass cloud of radioactive nastiness and insist on finding its creator, only to mind-meld with a bald chick with long legs?

Or maybe it's like Pacman where they're slowing down before vanishing only to appear at the other side of the Solar System?

Nah, it's probably just as you said; the probes are farting in the wrong direction.

Tanker


Ah... the stupid homo sapiens sapiens discover the presence of the 'anti-dunce barrier' created by the Galactic Confederation to prevent this species from getting out of its poor solar system. Much fun is to be had watching them wonder and rage.

Sophie

Sophie and Tanker, we salute you. We can all spend a useful and productive Friday pondering just that possibility. Fabulous.

Enjoy the weekend. ®

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