The BBC has rejected formal requests under the Freedom of Information Act for documents describing Project Canvas, the proposed platform for internet-connected television. The public broadcaster claims it is not in the public interest to release the requirements documents for the multi-million pound project to the public, although it has committed to publishing the final specifications in the autumn.
Under some pressure from members of the Digital TV Group, Project Canvas has provided a number of technical documents for peer review by the independent association that represents the interests of the television industry in the United Kingdom. Its extensive membership includes all the members of the proposed Project Canvas joint venture, as well as manufacturers and other stakeholders.
The proposed specifications have only been made available, subject to non-disclosure agreements, to the 150 or so member organisations of the DTG.
Given the stated objective is to produce an open platform, in the interests of transparency such information should be available to anyone with a legitimate interest in the £115 million pound joint venture in which the BBC is investing public funds.
So informitv asked to see a copy of the documents under the same terms and submitted a formal request to the BBC under the Freedom of Information Act. This provides a general right of access to information held by public authorities.
The BBC assistant general counsel responded to the request saying “this information is due to be published in the autumn on the YouView web site”. The BBC has declined to disclose the documents until this future unspecified date. The corporation has received at least one other similar request and provided a similar response.
Under section 22 of the United Kingdom Freedom of Information Act 2000, information is exempt if “(a) the information is held by the public authority with a view to its publication, by the authority or any other person, at some future date (whether determined or not), (b) the information was already held with a view to such publication at the time when the request for information was made and (c) it is reasonable in all the circumstances that the information should be withheld from disclosure”.
In this case, the public authority does not have to disclose the information where “in all the circumstances of the case, the public interest in maintaining the exemption outweighs the public interest in disclosing the information”.
The BBC response states “we do not consider that there is a particular public interest in the early release of this information”.
Surely there is legitimate public interest in allowing licence-fee payers and other qualified persons to see the proposed requirements specifications for the next generation of television devices and displays? Does this not outweigh the convenience of publishing them at some future date when the partners presumably expect them to have been finalised?
Apparently not. We are told that when published the information “will be presented in the appropriate context”. There is apparently a public interest in “the general public receiving information in a way that enables them to understand and interpret it.”
However, the BBC response concedes “It is in the public interest that this information should be disclosed to all licence-fee payers at the same time”. So we can look forward to that at least. No doubt the BBC Trust will make it a requirement of any approval that the specifications are placed in the public domain.
The DTG says that its members are reviewing the documents as part of the development of its own UK Connected TV Specification, due to be included in its D-Book 7 by the end of the year. To date this document has also only been available to DTG members and is not available to the public.
In the mean time informitv is appealing the decision and will pursue the matter with the BBC Trust and the Information Commissioner’s Office, which enforces and oversees the Freedom of Information Act.