Access to recent archival material
Records created in public administration bodies are subject to the provisions of the Norwegian Freedom of Information Act. This act lays down the main rule that the public shall have access to archival material. The only exception is confidential information.
The National Archives of Norway follow the provisions of the Norwegian Freedom of Information Act for archival material. Hence, the main rule means that, in principle, all the archival material kept by the institutions of the National Archives of Norway is freely accessible to anyone. In practice, this means that users may borrow the material for use in the archive's reading room in conformity with the applicable guidelines for protection against undue wear and tear and potential damage. Another condition is that information found in the archives may not be used for demeaning or degrading purposes.
Information on individuals
Public archives typically contain information on individuals. Occasionally, this information may be of a kind that most people would prefer to keep private – we do not want these data to be generally known. If such data are recorded in the archives, it is because the public authorities at one point needed access to this information for some purpose or other.
In many cases, we have ourselves provided the authorities with this information, but on the understanding that it may only be used for truly necessary purposes, and that public servants and governmental bodies that require access to this information or are in charge of archives containing such data shall not be allowed to disclose it to any other parties.
Information on trade secrets and matters of defence and foreign affairs may also be regarded as confidential. In addition, special confidentiality provisions are set forth in certain separate laws, including the Norwegian Statistics Act.
What is confidential?
Occasionally, deciding what is actually confidential and what is not is left to individual judgement. For personal information, the rule of thumb is that information most people would prefer to keep private is considered confidential, including health issues, political opinions, personal finances, criminal records, family law issues, etc.
As for business information, the general rule is that data other parties may exploit for business purposes are considered confidential.
Provisions on confidentiality
The provisions on confidentiality applying to private personal information and trade secrets are set forth in a separate section of the Norwegian Public Administration Act (Section 13). The Norwegian Freedom of Information Act explicitly establishes that information that is confidential pursuant to other laws shall be shielded from public access (Section 13).
The Norwegian Freedom of Information Act also contains a provision whereby certain types of information may be excepted from public access, including information on foreign affairs and national military and security matters (Section 20 and 21).
These provisions also apply to the National State Archives. Despite the objective of the National State Archives, which is to preserve archival material and to make it available to users, it hence follows that not all information and records in its holdings are automatically made accessible to
Matters of national security
The Norwegian Freedom of Information Act contains a provision whereby information concerning matters of national security may be excepted from public access. The authority issuing such a document indicates that it is to be excepted from public access by classifying the document with a security grading. The classifications that may be used for national security matters, described in the Norwegian Security Act, range from Restricted to Top Secret.
Only the entity that classified the document, i.e. assigned the initial security grading, may lift or downgrade its classification. Pursuant to the Security Instructions, the Norwegian national security regulations of March 17, 1972, such security classifications are automatically lifted after 30 years, unless it has been explicitly determined that the security grading is necessary for a longer period of time. It is important to be aware that a document may contain information that is confidential pursuant to the ordinary confidentiality provisions of the Norwegian Public Administration Act even when classification according to the Security Instructions expires, and hence nevertheless excepted from public access.
Restrictions on archival material
The fact that it is often difficult to distinguish documents containing confidential information from documents that may be freely accessible to the public represents a particular problem. When we know that certain records contain confidential information, it is therefore sometimes necessary to introduce special procedures for entire archives or parts of archives, i.e. "restrict" this material.
In general, public archives are restricted for 60 years, due to provisions on duty of confidentiality in Norwegian Public Administration Act, Section 13 c. Most archives older than 60 years are accessible for use. But due to privacy rights, certain series are under restrictions for extended periods. This includes data such as confidential information from criminal cases, prison archives and health archives (80 years), and statistical base data containing personal information (100 years).
Not until someone is in need of using said material will resources be allocated, within reasonable limits, for an actual review of the relevant data. The evaluation prior to disclosure may entail a waiting period. Under certain specified conditions, users may gain access to restricted material; in some cases by submitting a written petition.
Private papers, like public archives, often contain sensitive personal information. Once held by the National Archives, they are thereby subject to the provisions in the Freedom of Information Act and the Public Administration Act. In addition, private owners of archives may have entrusted their archives to the National Archives under various stipulations.
Private subjects may also deposit their archive collections in the National Archives. The archives are then still private property, and the provisions in the Freedom of Information Act and the Public Administration Act will not apply.
Any person may request to see restricted material. In all cases where a concrete assessment establishes that the relevant material does not contain confidential information after all, it will be made accessible to the user.
The fact that information is confidential does not necessarily rule out all use of such data. Essentially, the following two exceptions apply:
A Party’s Right to Inspect
With few exceptions, any person is entitled to access information about themselves, cf. the Norwegian Public Administration Act, 13a No. 1; 13b No. 1 and 18 ff. A person in need of seeing confidential information to be able to protect his or her own interests in an administrative case is also, under certain conditions, allowed to—or even entitled to—see confidential information on other people.
This right to inspect documents may be exercised by proxy, e.g. through a lawyer.
Under certain conditions, confidential information may be used for research purposes, cf. the Norwegian Public Administration Act, Section 13 d. Contrary to a party to a case, who has the right to inspect, a researcher is never entitled to access data for research purposes.
Several factors must be considered when deciding on a petition for access to confidential information for research purposes.
- the research in question must be research in the ordinary sense of this term, subject to the rules set forth in the drafts for the Norwegian Public Administration Act, together with the accompanying regulations
- a description of the intended research purpose that requires the use of the archival material must be submitted
- the person requesting such access must have sufficient professional expertise to complete such a research project. The main requirement is that such person must hold a scientific position within a relevant professional field, or be an advanced student under the guidance of a person in a scientific position. This means, for one, that general journalism activities do not constitute grounds for exceptions from confidentiality
- there is an obligation to consider whether granting access would entail disproportionate nuisance to other parties. Would knowing that a researcher had been allowed access to such information about them cause anyone strain?
A written petition is always required when seeking access to confidential material.
The petition is addressed to and submitted to the archive possessing the relevant material. It is often advisable to contact said archive in advance to ensure that the petition contains all the relevant information. This simplifies the processing of the petition.
The petition must:
- indicate as accurately as possible which records you wish to see
- if applying on the grounds of a party’s right to inspect, the petitioner’s connection to the relevant case must be explained
- researchers must indicate their profession or provide other documentation of their research expertise
- students must attach a confirmation letter from their academic advisor
In the context of a party’s right to inspect, the petition may be decided by the archive possessing the material.
In cases of access for research purposes, the case must always be brought before the Director General of the National Archives for a decision. If the case concerns data located in a regional state archive, the Regional Director submits his or her recommendation to the Director General.
As a general rule, access to a certain set of confidential data is granted for a limited period, e.g. for three years. It is then assumed that the relevant project will be completed within the given time frame. If the task takes longer, a petition for renewal must be submitted.
Assurance of confidentiality
Any person granted access to confidential information is required to sign a special statement. This document states that the undersigned is aware of being bound by an assurance of confidentiality in connection with being granted access to confidential data.
Denied petitions may always be appealed to the superior authority. Decisions made by the Director General are appealed to the Ministry of Cultural Affairs.