Tweeting FOI requests
Information law specialist Caroline Redhead from Burnetts explains why FOI requests made via Twitter are valid.
Many public authorities, including the ICO, have created Twitter accounts to communicate with users of their services. In an FAQ-style answer published in its monthly newsletter, the ICO has advised that freedom of information requests made via Twitter to authorities who have a Twitter account are valid.
Whilst the Information Commissioner acknowledges that Twitter is not the most effective channel for submitting or responding to freedom of information requests, he has confirmed that this does not mean that requests sent using Twitter are necessarily invalid. They can be valid requests in freedom of information terms and authorities that have Twitter accounts should plan for the possibility of receiving them.
So what is required for a “Twitter request” to be valid?
The key requirements for a request for information, which are set out in section 8 of the Freedom of Information Act 2000, are that a request;
• is in writing
• states the name of the applicant and an address for correspondence, and
• describes the information requested.
A request is to be treated as “made in writing” where the text of the request is transmitted by electronic means, is received in legible form and is capable of being used for subsequent reference.
A Twitter name may not be the requester's real name, but the real name may be shown in their linked profile. If the requester does not give his or her real name, it is technically not a valid freedom of information request. Whilst the authority may still choose to respond, the requester should be made aware that the Information Commissioner will not be able to deal with any subsequent complaint.
The request must also state an address 'for correspondence'. Does this include Twitter names? The length of a tweet would make it difficult for the authority to respond fully, but there are ways of dealing with this and the ICO has confirmed that provision of an e-mail address would satisfy the statutory requirement that the requester provide an address for correspondence. Alternatively the ICO has suggested that the authority could publish the requested information, or a refusal notice, on its website and tweet a link to that.
The ICO has also been asked whether a request in a tweet that only refers to an authority in an @mention, for example @ICOnews, is really directed to and received by that authority. The ICO's view is that it is. Twitter allows the authority to check for @mentions of itself, and so it has in effect received that request, even though it was not sent directly to the authority like an email or letter.
This may not be a welcome development for authorities who already feel besieged by FOIA requestors. The Information Commissioner has stated specifically that authorities should anticipate the receipt of requests through Twitter accounts which implies, necessarily, an obligation to monitor Twitter accounts for receipt of relevant requests (including in an @mention) which will need to be dealt with in accordance with the usual time frames. Whilst the ICO has said it “encourages requestors to use it responsibly” there is clearly scope for a significant increase in the workload of FOI officers if an authority is to ensure compliance with requests received through Twitter. The implication that use by requestors in an irresponsible way (whatever that might mean) would allow the authority to consider using the exemptions for vexatious and repeated requests is probably of scant comfort.
A direct result of the volume of requests received by public sector organisations and the associated cost of compliance, particularly in light of the Government’s stated intention to require greater transparency going forward, suggests that authorities should, if they don’t already do so, consider publishing requests and responses as a matter of course. An authority may also consider routine publication of information which it considers might be of interest to requestors (over and above that which is contained in the publication scheme) and which it would normally release in response to a request, with a view to reducing both the number of predictable requests and the associated costs of responding on an individual basis.
As a first step, all authorities should now revisit their FOI policies and procedures to ensure that this development is reflected. Clearly the change will also need to be communicated to all relevant staff.
For further information or advice contact Caroline Redhead on 01228 552222.