Image via Unearthed / Department for International Trade

Redacted documents released under Freedom of Information rules can be works of art. It’s not uncommon for entire pages of documents to be completely blanked out by those answering FOI requests.

When 65-pages of black ink is received by the person requesting information is received, it can be a baffling situation. However, redaction is an important part of the FOI process.

It allows for some information to be released at times when a public authority believes exemptions apply to what has been requested. Redactions, like almost any part of the FOI process in the UK, can be challenged.

But FOI redactions don’t always go right. It’s apparently harder to blank out information than an uninitiated person would believe.

There are times when someone has attempted to redact an FOI response and only highlighted the text in black. This can be copied into a plain text editor where the highlighting can be removed.

One recent FOI response from the Department for International Trade is set a new standard for redaction cock-ups. In an FOI response to Unearthed, the department accidentally highlighted the sections – in bright yellow – that it had intended to redact. It then sent them to journalists at the publication.

As Unearthed writes:

“DIT officials tried to redact key information from the cable, before sending it to Unearthed under Freedom of Information rules, but sent an unredacted version by mistake. The document reveals that the British government welcomed moves by the Brazilian government to “open up Brazilian pre-salt bidding rounds to international oil companies”.

For those struggling with FOI redactions, The National Archives and the Information Commissioner’s Office both have guides to doing it correctly.

I am a journalist and author. I am a journalist at the UK edition of WIRED magazine. In 2015, my first book Freedom of Information: A Practical Guide for UK Journalists, was published. My second book Reed Hastings: Building Netflix, was published in March 2020. I created FOI Directory in 2012 and have maintained it in my spare time ever since.