Beyond Freedom Of Information Requests: Freedom Of Code Requests

Freedom of information requests have become one of the most useful weapons in the armory of those seeking to bring more transparency and oversight to governments. Indeed, so powerful are they that the person responsible for introducing them in the UK, Tony Blair, later came to regret doing so:

“You idiot. You naive, foolish, irresponsible nincompoop,” Blair wrote of himself in his autobiography “A Journey” last year, recalling his adoption of the law, which took effect in 2005. “There is really no description of stupidity, no matter how vivid, that is adequate. I quake at the imbecility of it.”

A recent decision in France expands the power of the freedom of information law there in a rather interesting way. The case concerns a request to the Commission for Access to Administrative Documents (CADA, in French), an independent administrative authority responsible for ensuring the freedom of access to administrative documents. Here’s what happened, as reported by the French free software organization April:

At the end of November 2014, the CADA received a request by Mr X, who asked the Public Finance Department (Direction Générale des Finances Publiques — DGFiP) to send him the source code of the software for simulating personal income tax, in order to use it for academic research. At its board of 8 January 2015, the CADA issued its opinion, which was “favourable to communicating the requested source code to Mister X, in the format under which the government services store it. The requestor is free to reuse it according to Section 12 of the Act of 17 July 1978, barring any intellectual property rights held by third parties to the government services, which wouldn’t have been mentioned by the Director General for Finances”.

That broadens the application of access to government documents to include government software — presumably on the basis that its source code is indeed a kind of document. It will be interesting to see whether similar requests will be granted by other government departments in France, and if other countries could be persuaded to adopt the same view.

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