The Woo can disclose company information

According to the Open Government Act (Wet open overheid, Woo), you can request information about anything the government does. For example, if you, as a business owner, have ever applied for a grant, this information can be disclosed under the Woo. 5 questions and answers to offer clarity about the Woo and the publication of company data.

1. What is a Woo request? 

The Woo makes it possible to get information from public bodies that is recorded in documents. These include paper documents such as letters, reports, memos, policy documents and digital documents such as emails, text, and WhatsApp messages. The starting point is that all such government information is public. 

Exceptions can be made, for a number of reasons. For example, a company would not want confidential company data to be simply put out there. And members of the public will not appreciate it if their personal data is accessible to just anyone. The Woo therefore has several reasons for making exceptions. Based on these, a government organisation can refuse to disclose documents. 

If you apply for a subsidy from the government, details of your company may be included in the information that someone requests. This could be information that is of commercial value for your company, which you do not want the competition to know about. Financial data, such as on turnover and profits, is one example. Information about marketing strategies and production processes is another.

2. How does a Woo request work?

Karien Lagrouw, a lawyer and Woo specialist at TK advocaten notarissen in Leiden, outlines the process: “You submit a Woo request to a governing body. This could be a municipality, a province, or the central government, a Water Board, or the KVK. In principle, the administrative body makes a decision within 4 weeks of receiving the request. The starting point of the law is openness, but the governing body may refuse a Woo request. There are compelling and discretionary grounds for refusal (in Dutch). A request for information that could harm state security is an example of compelling grounds. This information is never made public.”

3. What about corporate information?

There are exceptional grounds for not disclosing information held by a government. Confidential business information need not be disclosed. The Woo includes a mandatory exception ground for this.

This means that business and manufacturing data that companies have provided to the government remains secret. This information is never made public for competition reasons.

Information not provided confidentially to the government is, in principle, public. Unless there is a particular exception that justifies the non-disclosure of the information requested. This means that there is a balancing of interests before any information is disclosed, if it is at all. The governing body determines whether the interests served by the disclosure of the business information outweighs your business interest. If they determine that it does, the governing body will notify you in a draft decision. You can then submit your views to prevent disclosure. If the decision does go through, you can appeal and object. 

Note: filing an objection has no suspensive effect. 2 weeks after the decision, the documents are simply made public. To prevent this, you need to file an injunction (voorlopige voorziening) as well as the objection.

If there is a ruling in your favour by the highest administrative court, the administrative body may not disclose the information permanently.

4. Will disclosure harm my business?

Frank Ponsioen, a former accountant and a co-owner of SME sparring partner Klankboard B.V., is not so concerned about this. “It is true that the balance sheet and the profit and loss account give insights into your turnover, gross margins, and expense patterns. But as a business owner, you should know your market and competitors. This is the only way to stand out. Your competitor's numbers will then not be a surprise. And by the same token, neither will yours. On top of that, business owners who have a bv must in any case file their annual accounts with KVK. So those figures are already public.” It is different for your production process or a recipe. “These are company-specific things that give you an advantage over your competitor. And you do not want to lose that advantage.”

5. What can you do yourself?

Lagrouw argues that governing bodies certainly do not simply go about disclosing business-sensitive information at a detailed level. “But it can happen if there is a request for an opinion.” She therefore advises business owners to at least put 'Confidential' on all documents they share with government agencies. This can be indicated at the beginning of the whole piece, for each paragraph, or even for each sentence. This last ensures that the governing body can decide precisely per item of information, business-sensitive or not, whether to disclose it.