On July 13, 2017 Germany’s first Open Data law came into effect, finally enabling free access to government data. The Open Data law is part of the change of the German E-Government law (EGovG), which we translated here. While it is neither part of the freedom of information act nor an actual transparency law, it provides the judicial foundation for obtaining data from all public authorities subject to the federal government. The authorities will provide raw data on publicly accessible networks, if it was stored in an electronically structured form and includes facts that regard circumstances outside of the administration. Furthermore, a central support agency for open data will be established.
It all started during the coalition negotiations in September 2013, where we focused our lobby efforts on introducing a statement in the coalition agreement saying that the government seeks to establish an “Open Data Law”. The inclusion of such phrases is crucial in the law-making process, because it provides a point of reference for future lobbying efforts, especially once the topic is out of the public’s attention. Similarly, the inclusion of the phrase “Germany seeks to the join the Open Government Partnership” in the coalition agreement lead to its accession in December 2016.
Open Data not a government priority
For the majority of the current legislative period, the Open Data Law was not part of the public agenda, but concentrated community efforts eventually paid off. The Konrad Adenauer Stiftung held a conference on Open Data in December 2015 and presented a study on its economic potential at the federal ministry of economics’ first conference on Open Data in April 2016. Furthermore, joint civil society actions were coordinated at a meeting at the Stiftung Neue Verantwortung in December 2015.
The topic really started to gather attention in the late summer of 2016, when Netzpolitik.org published the governments’ internal position paper on the key aspects of a possible open data law. The initial plans for the law were subject to massive criticism throughout the community, because it did not call for obligatory publishing of the data and included a large number of exceptions. A first roundtable was convened at Fraunhofer Fokus Institute in October 2016 collecting improvement suggestions.
The first draft of the law was eventually published in December 2016 and was thoroughly reviewed together with our community. Thereafter, we published a public statement calling for less publication exceptions and a reduction in the maximum time for data publication from 3 to 2 years. Furthermore, we continuously widened our advocacy efforts for a proper Open Data Law on several issues such as open weather data, the beneficial ownership register and E-Government in Germany. Further actions were coordinated by Bitkom’s Open Data Taskforce in February 2017.
Community effort leads to success
The dedication was worth it, when the law eventually passed - as part of a 24 hour law-making marathon in May 2017 - substantial parts had been improved, in line with our demands. The restrictive regulations prohibiting access were dropped significantly and not only new but also existing datasets were included in the proposal. Furthermore, data publication was made obligatory and the maximum time for publication reduced from 3 to 2 years.
Nonetheless, the open data law has its flaws, instead of making the law part of the freedom of information act IFG, it only covers data in tabular form, excluding written documents. Furthermore, the federal structure of Germany prohibits the law of covering the regional authorities (Bundesländer). Therefore, the law only covers data of those public authorities directly subordinate to the federal administration. Similarly, universities and research agencies that are only indirectly subordinate to the federal administration are not part of the law.