Social media FOI guidance for councils released

Councils can refuse freedom of information requests from Twitter accounts where the requester’s real name is not provided, according to new guidance released by the Information Commissioner’s Office.

The information watchdog this week released updated guidelines to public authorities on how to recognise requests made under the Freedom of Information Act.

It confirmed that such requests can be made via messages to social media sites such as Twitter or Facebook, but that public bodies are only obliged to require with the Act if real names are provided.

The document said: “Where the requester’s username is an obvious pseudonym, or only includes a part of their real name (for example @john3453 or @smith6474) then the request will only be valid if their real name is visible elsewhere on their user profile.”

However, it added that “if the name provided is not an obvious pseudonym and the public authority has no reason to believe that a pseudonym is being used, the authority should just accept the name provided at face value”.

“Whilst this may mean that some pseudonymous requests will slip through the net, we would not want to see a situation where authorities routinely carry out checks on requesters’ identities. The Act provides a public right to information, not a right limited to certain individuals,” it said.

Authorities refusing requests on the grounds that the name is invalid should advise the requester to resubmit the request using their real name, the ICO said.

The guidelines also said that councils should attempt to publish responses to FOI requests on the same social media site on which they are made.

If councils believe that it would be inappropriate to publish the information online, then it should reply by a private message or request an alternative contact address.

Where requests are submitted through Twitter, authorities should ask the requester to provide an alternative email or postal address, or post the information on its own website and provide a link.

The ICO also said that requests for documents featuring keywords are generally valid because they make a distinction between information that does and does not contain those keywords.

But it said: “We recognise that there is a possibility a requester may cite a keyword so common that it makes the scope of the request unreasonably broad.”

In some circumstances, the framing of a request using a very common keyword may be an indication that the request is vexatious, the guidance said.

Colin Marrs

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