What is freedom of information, and does it apply to my company?

by Dan Byrne on Mar 7, 2023

What is freedom of information

What is freedom of information? It’s a collection of worldwide laws allowing the public access to data held by certain institutions.

Primarily, freedom of information (FOI) concerns citizens and their governments. 

A classic example of such a law would be a person’s entitlement to see all data that a state body (for example, the health service) has on file for them. 

Rights such as this are safeguarded with differing levels of severity. For example, in its vigorous drive for data protection, the EU has some of the world’s strictest FOI laws.

Who uses freedom of information requests?


  1. The general public uses them to view any personal data an organisation holds.
  2. Journalists or other media workers use them to access information from any public body’s activities. 

It’s the second point above that boards and other corporate leaders should be most aware of. Freedom of information requests have formed the basis for many prominent journalistic investigations and revelations. 

What’s more, journalists know how to navigate FOI requests. As trained professionals, they know when to be vague, when to be specific, and the questions to ask that ensure their request won’t automatically be turned down.

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How does freedom of information work?

Individuals can generally request information in writing or through an online service from a given organisation. 

The organisation has a specified number of days to process the request. During this time, they will assess whether it is reasonable and in line with legal transparency requirements. 

If the organisation deems the request reasonable, it must provide the relevant information. If it doesn’t, it must explain why the request is being denied. Often, organisations deny requests because the information may reveal confidential information about a third party or jeopardise established work. 

Remember though: an organisation can also deem a request partially reasonable, meaning it will provide some of the requested information but not all.

Can board/executive business be subject to freedom of information requests?

In general:

  • If your company is private, the answer is no. 
  • If your company is public, the answer is yes. 

Any organisation with government involvement or accepting government cash is generally considered a fair target for FOI requests. It comes from the principle that the public has a right to know about any business financed by their tax contributions.

So, if I’m on a public board, anything I do is subject to FOI?

Not necessarily. This is where it gets technical. 

As mentioned, part of the FOI process is deciding whether the scope of the request is reasonable. This decision must be made for every FOI request relating to board business. 

So, for example, if you’re wondering whether the minutes of a board meeting can be subject to FOI, the decision process will take into account the importance of the information to the public interest and any potential harm that releasing the information could cause to the organisation’s work or individual welfare.

Does this vary by jurisdiction?


As with many legal processes, knowing what your country’s lawmakers say about freedom of information is essential. Your first step should always be to consult local legislation, so you’re sure.

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