Can you make a FOI Request via Twitter?

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The First Tier Tribunal (the Tribunal) in the case of Ghafoor v Information Commissioner has held that a Freedom of Information (FOI) request made under the Freedom of Information Act 2000 (FOIA) made via Twitter did not meet the requirements of a valid request because the tweet did not contain the users real name and it did not provide a suitable address for correspondence.

Facts

A Twitter user called @FOIkid responded to a tweet by the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) stating that over 99% of jobs listed on its Universal Jobmatch service was genuine. The requester asked for the report that DWP was using including the data considered and method use. The requesters profile on Twitter did not list the user’s real name.

The DWP replied saying that it could not reply via Twitter but it would via email. The user responded that it could reply via Twitter by uploading the material to a website and then tweeting the link. At a later date the DWP emailed the requester stating that it did not hold the information.

The matter was referred to the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO). Upon review, the ICO held that the request was valid because it provided an address for a response and the requester’s name was displayed on his Twitter profile and DWP was late in responding to the Twitter request. However, the DWP was not in breach by refusing to respond using the medium of Twitter because FOIA (section 11 (1) a) allowed the applicants to request the format in which the information was supplied but not specify the format in which a confirmation or denial was given.

Judgment

The Tribunal found that the request was not valid primarily because a Twitter username is not suitable for correspondence as it did not contain the requester’s real name. While the Tribunal accepted that FOIA (section 8) did not expressly require a requester to give their “real” name, a public authority would be entitled to this in order to consider whether the request is vexatious or whether it should be aggregated with others in order to minimise cost.

Similarly, FOIA does not expressly require that an address for correspondence is suitable for correspondence but the Tribunal considered that this must have been intended and its view was that “a means of communication which is limited to 140 characters is unsuitable”.

In addition, the Tribunal held that a requester’s ability to specify the form of information provided does not apply to an authority confirming or denying whether it holds the information. However, providing the requester uses a valid address for correspondence, authorities are not permitted to demand a different address.

Impact

This is an interesting decision in that it is not clear as to what Parliament actually intended in relation to “real” name or suitable address for correspondence as part of a FOI request.

While public authorities must be in a position to consider the request including in accordance with the exemptions available to them provided by FOIA, they are also under an obligation to assist a requester when they make a request. As such, it may be that a public authority can easily establish the “real” name of the requester by engaging with the requestor as part of their duty to provide assistance.

This decision also challenges the current guidance from the ICO, which provides that if a Twitter user used their full name or their full name was visible on their Twitter profile this would be sufficient to make a FOI request via Twitter. Following this decision, this may be subject to change and we will provide details of further developments on our blog.

Forbes Solicitors assist a range of public authorities with queries in relation to freedom of information law and practice including FOI and provide in-house training. If you have any questions, please contact Daniel Milnes.

Nat Avdiu

About Nat Avdiu

Nat Avdiu is a Paralegal in the Contracts and Projects team at Forbes Solicitors. Nat provides updates for clients on a range of issues including: governance, data protection and freedom of information, procurement and charity law.
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