EXCLUSIVE

The browser extension results in pictures of Tony Abbott being replaced with "cute kittens".

The browser extension results in pictures of Tony Abbott being replaced with "cute kittens".

Staff at the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet have used up more than 130 pages of correspondence talking about a web plug-in that replaces pictures of Tony Abbott with ‘‘cute kittens’’.

But after charging the program’s creator $700 for access to those pages, what they actually said is a mystery, for now.

Developers Dan Nolan and Ben Taylor and designer Matt Kelsh made the "Stop Tony Meow" browser extension in January. Downloaded more than 50,000 times, it automatically swaps any picture of Mr Abbott encountered online with pictures of cats.

Curious as to what the Prime Minister and his staff thought of the extension, Mr Nolan submitted a Freedom of Information request to the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet for any correspondence that mentioned the words "Stop Tony Meow".

‘‘There was an issue where the Liberal party website and other sites were slightly modified so the extension didn’t apply there,’’ Mr Nolan said.

‘‘I had a gut feeling that maybe someone had sent an email internally saying that we need to stop this thing from working on our site, what can we do?

‘‘I don’t think there’s going to be any high-level stuff ... but it would be really interesting to see how a government department reacts to these weird new kinds of technology and culture jamming stuff, which previously they wouldn’t have had to deal with.’’

However once the Department had approved the release of 137 pages of correspondence relating to the Stop Tony Meow request, it charged Mr Nolan $720.30 in fees for access.

Broken down, that was $82.80 for "search and retrieval", $13.70 for photocopies and $623.80 for "decision-making time" - 36.19 hours at $20 per hour (with the first five hours free of charge as dictated by the FOI legislation).

‘‘It seems like someone has taken an exceptionally long time to make a decision,’’ Mr Nolan said. ‘‘I assume that most of that is boosted up and inflated in order to kind of deter people from making FOI requests or because they think I’m being a vexatious applicant or because they think the data is not important.’’

In 2010, the then Labor government reformed Australia’s federal FOI laws, aiming to promote a "pro-disclosure culture" and "more transparency in government".

But lawyer Peter Timmins, who has 25 years’ experience dealing in FOI, said he couldn’t recall a government ever making ‘‘any positive statement of support for open, transparent and accountable government’’ to back up the goals of the country’s FOI legislation.

‘‘While not universal, administration of the act is marked by delay and obfuscation and other conduct giving rise to suggestions that some agencies game the system,’’ Mr Timmins said.

The price tag attached to any successful application can also act as a hurdle between the public and government information. While the government is entitled to recover some of the costs of running the FOI Act (around $45.3 million in 2012 - 2013), Mr Timmins believes the current fee structure is overly complex.

‘‘The general starting point should be that there is no additional charge for FOI access [after a one-off application fee], the taxpayer having paid for the collection and utilisation of the information in the first place.

‘‘The reality is that much of the cost of administering the FOI act is the costly, wasteful, bureaucratic conduct of government agencies,’’ he said.

Mr Nolan challenged the fees on his Stop Tony Meow request, arguing that the documents should be free on public interest grounds. The Department has denied this request.

Now a few friends have suggested he pass a hat around to make up the funds and get access to the pages.

‘‘If they’re interested enough and intrigued enough about it and people throw in 10 or 20 bucks between, you know, 30 or 40 people to get it sorted,’’ he said. ‘‘Or I might just throw the cash down.’’

The Department declined to respond to claims it had inflated the time taken to make a decision or answer questions from Fairfax Media about its decision-making process for Mr Nolan’s request.

‘‘The Department considers it is inappropriate to correspond concerning an applicant’s FOI request with anyone other than the applicant,’’ a spokesperson said.

‘‘If an applicant has concerns about the way in which the Department handles their FOI request they have rights of complaint and review under the FOI legislation.’’