What’s Information?

Information can have a very academic definition (just take a look at the Wikipedia entry on the term – Information), and I’ve no doubt it keeps some kinds of philosophers exercised, but it’s also a term at the centre of the occasional legal dispute.

information

There’s an interesting case raging at the moment (‘raging’ might perhaps be an exaggeration!) as to what constitutes ‘information’ under the Freedom of Information Act in the UK.

IPSA (the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority) is in charge of checking MPs’ expenses and determining if they are justified in respect of MPs fulfilment of their Parliamentary duties. You will remember that some years ago a few MPs were found to be putting forward expenses that would nowadays be difficult to justify, such as the cost of cleaning a moat.

As a result of those scandals all MPs’ expenses are now published for the general public to review. They are made available through a website but, crucially for this case, without images of the original invoices and receipts that MPs present to IPSA, so the public can’t see the additional text, or logos, that might also be found there. Expenses are published in summary form, presumably containing the ‘information’ that IPSA believe is relevant for justification.

IPSA’s Publication Website

Some years ago, a journalist from the Daily Telegraph asked to see copies of original receipts and invoices and IPSA turned him down. The Daily Telegraph then appealed to the Information Commissioner, who ruled that IPSA should provide the copies he asked for. IPSA, in turn, appealed against the Commissioner’s ruling twice and the case reached the Court of Appeal a month or two ago.

Now, finally, the Court of Appeal has ruled in the Information Commissioner’s favour. Their view (detailed here) seems to be that ‘information’ means more than just a summary published electronically. It also means logo, layout, additional text, or handwritten notes on any invoice or receipt provided to IPSA by MPs, the kind of information that could only be obtained from examining a copy.

They make use of a general distinction between ‘information’ and the ‘record’ that contains it. The sheet of paper on which a receipt is printed, is ‘record’, the printing on the paper is ‘information’, but they also acknowledge that the distinction is not an easy one to make. The physical properties of the paper are properties of the ‘record’ but logos, layout and additional text, whether printed or handwritten, are ‘information’, especially if they influence IPSA’s judgement as to the genuineness of a document and therefore whether it is a justifiable expense. IPSA are obliged by law to publish information but not the record itself. Thus original documents need not be made available, but electronic copies must be.

This may seem like a scholastic and academic debate, but the implications of this ruling on information publication in general are huge. Philosophers (of a certain kind) would probably reject this exercise of meticulous definition as bound to fail, and would challenge the separation of ‘record’ and ‘information’. They would point to the struggle to place a property in one or the other category as symptomatic of its ultimate uselessness. True, in the digital world, where ‘information’ is carried by 1s and 0s it’s easy to see the separation, but in most contexts it’s not. Try defining any concept precisely in another form of words. Try ‘chair’.

It would make better sense to frame the law in terms of purpose, but I am no lawyer so there may be insuperable difficulties in doing so. Better to say that the Freedom of Information Act requires that everything should be disclosed that can reasonably be held to bear on the decisions or judgements made, which will differ by context and the purpose of the Government body. This way there need be no debate about the meaning of information. Even matters which their Lordships regard as related to ‘record’ rather than ‘information’, such as the weight of paper, might be relevant in judging the authenticity of a large invoice.

As all parties have discovered, it’s difficult to come up with the precise definition of a word without reference to context and purpose. ‘Information’ is a matter of what you do with it.

See the Guardian’s reporting of the case here.

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