Tweets and Tw*ts, redux

NOTHING TO SEE HERE, MOVE ALONG.

UPDATE: 13 December 2012

In a tweet to me of 5 December the ICO kindly clarified that there has been no change. The reference to twitter names is now contained in this guidance.

Has there been a subtle change of policy by the ICO on the subject of FOI requests made by twitter?

Last year I blogged about a Freedom of Information Act 2000 (FOIA) request I made to the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) via twitter. I referred the ICO to their own guidance (hosted as part of a web page, not as a separate download), which said

The request must state the name of the applicant…A Twitter name may not be the requester’s real name, but the real name may be shown in their linked profile…The request must also state an address ‘for correspondence’. Does this include Twitter names? The length of a tweet makes it difficult for the authority to respond fully, but there are ways of dealing with this. The authority could ask the requester for an email address in order to provide a full response. Alternatively, it could publish the requested information, or a refusal notice, on its website and tweet a link to that.

The question I have given emphasis there did not have a specific answer in the guidance, but one inferred that the answer was “yes” from the words that followed.

This morning I made a twitter FOIA request to the Department for Education, to which they replied asking me to provide an email address or fill in an online form. I was going to refer them to the ICO’s guidance, but found that it doesn’t exist anymore. Fair enough: websites change and URLs get broken. However, unless I am mistaken what I have also found is that the ICO no longer seems to imply that a twitter name is an address for correspondence, according to section 8(1)(b) of FOIA. As far as my search skills can ascertain, the ICO now says

Requests can also be made via the web, or even on social networking sites such as Facebook or Twitter if your public authority uses these…[the request must] include an address for correspondence. This need not be the person’s residential or work address – it can be any address at which you can write to them, including a postal address or email address

No reference there to twitter names. More detailed guidance from the ICO says

Where a request has request in line with section 8(1) of FOIA if the requester has provided their name and a valid address. Where possible a response to the requester should be sent for example by providing a web link. If the name or address is not provided it is not a valid request, therefore if information is not being provided a reply should be sent advising the requester of this, and asking for the required information.

Again, no reference to twitter names.

These changes, unless I have indeed missed something, with their absence of reference to the possibility of a twitter name being “an address for correspondence” indicate a retreat by the ICO. It could well be that they’ve had to acknowledge that twitter is perhaps not the most appropriate medium for FOIA requests. If so, it would be helpful if they could – clearly – issue revised guidance. Their announcement that requests could be made by twitter got a lot of coverage, and led to the highest court in the land accepting that it had been wrong to imply it would not consider them valid requests.

I’ve made a FOIA request to the ICO to find out whether their policy has changed. Guess which medium I used?

UPDATE: 13 December 2012

In a tweet to me of 5 December the ICO kindly clarified that there has been no change. The reference to twitter names is now contained in this guidance.

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7 Comments

Filed under Freedom of Information, Information Commissioner, transparency, Uncategorized

7 responses to “Tweets and Tw*ts, redux

  1. Andrew Walsh

    Hi Jon,
    Sorry I can’t access Twitter at the moment so might be missing something here – but if the DoE replied asking for an email address, wouldn’t that actually be fully in accordance with the initial ICO guidance? (“The authority could ask the requester for an email address in order to provide a full response”).

    Obviously the alternative option was given of putting the informaiton on your website and tweeting a link. Personally I didn’t/don’t read that as something an authority must do in the event that the requestor refuses to provide a name – i.e. the guidance didn’t/doesn’t suggest that is a requirement. It seems something of an imposition on the authority to force them to put informaiton on their site which might not otherwise be appropriate where a requestor fails to provide a ‘valid’ address.

    By way of balance, to be fair to the ICO, I don’t think the previous guidance implied in anyway that Twitter was the most appropriate medium for FOIA requests – simply that it was possible.

    • Hi Andy

      I’m not criticising DfE – asking for an email address is certainly an option the ICO suggests, but his old guidance suggested that a twitter name could suffice for s8(1)(b) purposes. If a public authority accepted that, it would require the requester to do no more than tweet the request and sit back to wait for the response.

      I certainly agree that putting information on a website and tweeting a link was not obligatory – I just think it’s interesting the ICO appears to have resiled a bit from suggesting a twitter name could be a s8(1)(b) address. And if he has, I wonder why.

  2. There’s an excellent summary on the Scottish Information Commissioner’s website showing their view: “the Commissioner takes the view that, for the request to be valid, the name of the requester must be evident from the tweet itself.”
    It’s here: http://www.itspublicknowledge.info/FAQ/GeneralFAQ/InformationRequestFAQ.asp#facebook

    It seems a pretty sensible approach, emphasising the difficulty for a public authority in responding, especially when they are not disclosing the information requested.

  3. Andrew Walsh

    Hi – sorry, still not sure I follow – or perhaps I just don’t agree!

    The guidance (or former guidance) stated that to overcome the problem of sending an FOI response to Twitter, a PA could ask for an email address.

    The way I understand it is that there is a difference between a) saying you can submit a request via Twitter (and that a Twitter name is valid) – and b) that the address is valid, i.e. just because your method and name is valid, it doesn’t follow that your address is.

    As the guidance states:

    “the requirement is for an address to be supplied such that it enables correspondence to reach the applicant”.

    So whilst you could indeed make the request and sit back in cases where a PA could communicate an appropriate response to Twitter – if they can’t then they are entitled to ask for an email address
    My reading of the guidance doesn’t allow you to refuse and insist they publish and tweet the link – not that I’m suggesting this is what you were doing!

    I think the requestor who failed to provide a valid address would be relying on goodwill/customer service – and one must then wonder whether that was necessary/appropriate if the requestor was just being difficult. I recall a requester (not you) doing exactly this shortly after the guidance was issued and I thought it was setting an unfortunate precedent that we (the ICO) did jump through hoops and publish for someone who wasn’t prepared to fulfil their end of the bargain/legislation. But then I thought the same about ‘Bruce Springsteen’. http://www.whatdotheyknow.com/request/cornwall_council_response_times#incoming-300545. By all means use a pseudonym if you wish, but don’t stick two fingers up to the legislation whilst doing so. That type of thing weakens the reputation and effectiveness of FOI.

    More generally, I know that responding via twitter causes more work and is awkward – I get the impression others including yourself share this view/experience. So, out of curiosity, without suggesting that you were simply being awkward, may I ask why you didn’t provide the DoE with an email address – and similarly why you didn’t email the ICO your request (was it definitely a request and not a question by the way)?

    • I don’t actually think we disagree that much – or that there’s much to disagree with!

      My real point is that at some point quite recently the wording “The request must also state an address ‘for correspondence’. Does this include Twitter names?”, with the implication
      that it could, has apparently gone from the ICO site. I think this is potentially interesting because if it was intentional it might indicate a slight revising of position.

      As to the rights and wrongs of twitter FOI requests, I generally think it’s not the best medium for a requester to use, and I wouldn’t seriously criticise an authority for suggesting a different route. As far as I can recall I’ve only made two FOI requests by twitter, and one of those was unintentional (the ICO one I blogged about last year). They might suit the sort of request which is effectively a yes/no type, and I did think my DfE one could be responded to relatively straightforwardly with a list of names. If they’d say to me that the nature of the info means it couldn’t easily be tweeted, or published with a link, then I’ll happily give them an email.

      I suppose I may have been being a bit mischievous but a serious request can sometimes be made mischievously but also illustrate the knowledge and good (or bad) FOI practice of an authority.

  4. Andrew Walsh

    Yes, to my shame (and my girlfriend’s dismay) I re-read it all in the pub last night and grasped the point a little more.
    That said, I didn’t regard that initial guidance as clear in terms of whether a twitter address is valid – I actually think it implies not (hence suggesting asking for an email address), so I don’t think the current guidance represents a departure from that position. I might be looking at things too much from the eyes of a weary (former) FOI officer, but if a requester is unwilling to provide an address when politely asked, then I don’t think its unreasonable for an authority to refuse to deal with it.
    I suppose the crux of the issue is if someone refuses to provide an email address and the PA refuses to publish and tweet a link, have they breached the Act?

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