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Secretive management at Southampton University are undermining the spirit of Freedom of Information (FOI) laws, if not necessarily contravening the letter.

Reg reader and founder of website publicwhip, Francis Irving, draws our attention to a fairly innocuous request to the University requesting details of the "total amount received by the purchase of printer credit at the University of Southampton for the academic years 2006/7, 2007/08 and 2008/09".

Hardly earth-shattering information. The author of the request, Adam Richardson, was therefore very surprised to receive back from the University – about a month later than the law suggests – a copy-protected PDF document, which requires the recipient to swear that they are indeed the person who made the FOI request before viewing the rest of the document.

The rest of the document bears a watermark saying who requested it.

This makes use of a special PDF feature, which doesn't work on many PDF viewers. According to Mr Irving, "they are asking you to agree to a licence before viewing an FOI response. This makes little sense, as anyone in the world can request the same information."

In addition to these technological barriers, the University also adds an "Intellectual Property Rights Notice" which would appear to be a direct contravention of the law in this area. They claim to "reserve all intellectual property rights" in respect of material provided under the FOI request. The material may not be further used without the "written permission of the University".

This appears to be more than a one-off, as regulars to the FOI request site, whatdotheyknow, have spotted other instances where Southampton have pulled the same trick. A FOI request is now winging its way toward the University authorities inquiring what all this hi-tech protection actually costs.

A spokeswoman for the Information Commissioner’s Office agreed that this was very much contrary to the spirit of the FOI legislation. Individuals cannot take it for granted that a second request, identical to one already made, will always be granted: individual circumstances may always play a part.

However, she stressed that best practice was for organisations to publish responses to FOI requests as widely as possible, in order to save the time and expense of duplicate requests. This is a practice that many police forces - Greater Manchester, for instance - have now adopted, with recent FOI requests and their responses up on most force websites.

The restriction on further use of material without the University’s permission will also come as some surprise to journalists, for whom the FOI has become one means to prise the lid off otherwise secretive organisations.

The University have since responded by making a distinction between the information provided and the document containing that information. They write: "The Freedom of Information Act gives applicants the right to have information held by public authorities communicated to them, not to documents.

"Applicants are entitled to use that information so long as they do not breach the intellectual property rights of the public authority: taking the information and using it in a document of their own is acceptable, making use of a document which contains not only the information requested but copyright material is not.

"This approach is an offshoot of a process developed to protect the privacy of personal information contained in responses to requests under the Data Protection Act. The initial cost in terms of time was indeed well spent, as it secured the privacy of staff and students’ personal information: the time taken in relation to FOI requests is negligible (less than five minutes).

"The University adds that it is confident that its FOI process is not incompatible with the spirit of the Freedom of Information Act." ®

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