While the Right to Information Act permits withholding certain data from
disclosure, when public interest outweighs privacy, transparency prevails. For
example, if a government body holds trade secrets provided confidentially by a
third party, or communications within trusted relationships, exemption applies.
However, should wider societal benefit from revelation surpass potential harm,
the Public Information Officer may share.
Likewise, if an applicant requests industrial or intellectual property obtained
non-commercially, non-disclosure remains the norm. But compelling need, such as
pressing health or safety issues concerning many, could warrant setting aside
privacy in favour of the greater good of the community, keeping the larger
public interest in mind.
According to section 8(2) of the RTI Act, 2005, no matter what is stated in the
Official Secrets Act 1923 and all other exemptions permitted under subsection
(1), a public authority can grant access to information provided that promotion
of public interest through dissemination of information takes precedence over
non-disclosure. The burden rests on a public authority to show that it would
have used all relevant factors in applying a public interest test to any cited
exemption. It is not enough to list all negative factors that contradict with
It is also required that officials provide a complete enumeration, in support as
well as against, of all applicable public interest factors examined on the test.
They should also prove there is an expectation of the particular harm following
the disclosure information.
This concept can be better understood through examples given below:
- If a senior Tax Department officer investigates to improve tax
procedures and finds instances of widespread tax evasion and collusion among
officials, sharing this information with an individual citizen doesn't
really serve a larger public interest. The report's purpose is more about
showing the need for system reforms rather than taking action against those
involved. So, disclosing the details to an individual doesn't contribute to
the larger public good as the focus is on bringing positive changes to the
system rather than penalizing specific wrongdoers.
- If an Information Officer decides not to share a trader's trade secret
with another person and the trader's business heavily relies on that secret,
it's not considered a matter of larger public interest. The right to
information for the other person doesn't outweigh the importance of keeping
the trade secret confidential. Revealing the trade secret could harm the
trading pattern and negatively affect the business community. So, in this
case, protecting the trade secret is seen as more important than disclosing
it for the sake of public interest.
- When information is confidential or involves trust, like discussions
between the Government and its legal advisor or between a trustee and their
beneficiary, revealing these communications may not significantly benefit
the broader public. There's a widely accepted legal principle that
confidential information should stay confidential unless revealing it is
crucial for taking necessary actions. So, in such cases, the focus is on
keeping sensitive information private unless disclosure becomes essential
for a specific follow-up action.
- If someone asks for information about an individual's personal matters
or a government officer's personal details, there's usually no public
interest in either revealing or keeping it secret. The rule is that
information should relate to the administration of the State to be provided.
When it comes to the delicate matter of personal information, it's vital to
strike a delicate balance. Under ordinary circumstances, maintaining
confidentiality takes precedence. However, suppose there exists a compelling
rationale linking someone's private data to their public endeavours. In that
case, the scale tilts in favour of disclosure. The intricate balance between
safeguarding personal privacy and serving the greater good comes into play.
In the context of the Right to Information (RTI) Act, 2005, "public interest"
refers to the collective welfare and well-being of the general populace. It
involves considerations that prioritize societal benefits over individual or
private interests. Public interest is critical in the context of the RTI Act.
It assists in deciding on making available certain information that would have
traditionally been classified to warrant privacy, especially when doing so
serves the larger good. For example, divulging an information that is regarding
national security, privacy or environment may have high implications for public
interest hence revealing the truth.
In this regard, the expression "larger public interest" in the RTI law goes
beyond general health and covers wider issues which affect many people in the
country. This provision recognizes that there are instances where the disclosure
of information, even if falling under exempt categories, serves a paramount
The Act allows authorities to disclose such information when it is deemed
essential for the greater good, following a careful balancing act where the
public interest in disclosure is weighed against potential harms. This dual
framework in the RTI Act seeks to strike a delicate balance between the
citizens' right to information and the imperative to safeguard certain
information for the overall well-being of society.
- Commentary on The Right to Information Act, 2005, N K Acharya, Asia Law