Summary: Information Commissioner Rules that Business Register Was Right to Refuse Access Because the Data Was Already Available Online
|Request sent to||Serbian Business Registers Agency (SBRA) (Click here)|
|Outcome of request||Information refused|
|Time taken to respond||46 working days (deadline is 15 working days)|
|Reason for refusal||Database not a document.
No need to answer if info is already online.
FOI exceptions applied to registers.
The initial request was sent to the Agency for Business Registry in Serbia by Access Info’s partner, Vlad Kostic, on 1 October 2013. The request asked for a full copy of the company register database. In this case we asked for “all the data, available on electronic support, pertaining to the companies registered between the 1st of January 1990 and the 30th July 2013. According to the Serbian access to information law, public bodies are required to answer requests within 15 working days.
On 18 October 2013, the Agency for Business Registry responded to our request, denying us the information because according to them, the Serbian Law on Free access to information of public importance, does not include databases as part of its definition of “public information”, because it refers only to “documents”.
According to the Serbian Law of Free Access to Information of Public Importance, “Information” is defined as information “held by a public authority body, created during or relating to the operation of a public authority body, which is contained in a document and concerns anything the public has a justified interest to know.”
The Agency for Business Registry also argued that the Law on Free access to information on public importance allows institutions not to provide further information to citizens, if that information is already published and available within the country or on the internet. They argued that all of the information that they are legally required to publish is already available on their website.
In addition, the Agency for Business Registry argued that our request was too broad, and that under the Serbian Law on Free access to information on public importance, requests can be rejected for this reason.
Finally, the Agency stated that they were only authorised to process personal data if the recipient of the data was another state authority. They argued that they would be breaching the Law on personal privacy if they were to provide us with the full database, including the names of individuals.
In response to this refusal, we sent an appeal to the Serbian Information Commissioner on 29 October 2013. In the appeal, we argued that the databases were inherently of a public nature and that therefore, citizens should not have to pay to access the information contained therein. We argued that it made no sense that partial information could be accessed on a case-by-case basis for free, whilst a selection of data, or a specific data-set, was only accessible upon payment.
We argued that there was a strong public interest in knowing who the owners of companies are and how they operate, particularly where companies are acting in areas which are of significant public importance (media, health, environment, etc.) and where they are doing business with the government (such as through public procurement contracts), or receiving public subsidies or tax breaks.
In addition, we argued that the current provisions for access to the company register database were too restrictive, as they do not allow citizens to search freely through the information, meaning that the Serbian Business Registers Agency could not rely on the reasoning that they did not need to provide us with access to the full database because it was already available via their website.
We also argued that it did not make sense to reject our request based on the need to protect personal privacy because the names of the owners of companies were already accessible online for free on a record-per-record basis.
The deadline for the Information Commissioner to provide a ruling was 30 days after we submitted an appeal, but 2.5 months later, on 14 January 2014, the Serbian Information Commissioner rejected our appeal.
The Information Commissioner accepted the Serbian Business Registers Agency’s arguments that the information was already accessible online and that therefore the access to information law exempted them from providing access in response to our request, but the Information Commissioner also called on the Serbian Business Registers Agency to look into how it might improve the search functions on its website. Unfortunately, the Information Commissioner did not examine any of the other arguments raised by either of the two parties.