Earlier this week the question of the validity of tweeted information requests under the Freedom of Information Act 2000 arose once again. I have written on this subject previously and you can read that post here. The discussion arose following the decision of the First-Tier Tribunal (Information Rights) in the case of Bilal Ghafoor v the Information Commissioner. In that case the Tribunal determined that Mr Ghafoor had not made a valid request for information for two reasons: (1) Mr Ghafoor did not provide his real name in his request and (2) he did not provide an address for correspondence. My view is that in respect of both of these questions the Tribunal was wrong.
You can read the full procedural history in the Tribunal’s decision (paragraphs 2 – 12). Mr Ghafoor appealed to the Tribunal on whether the DWP had failed to comply with section 11 of the Freedom of Information Act 2000 buy not responding to his request via Twitter. However, the Tribunal essentially performs a full reconsideration of the entire request when it hears a case. Instead the Tribunal decided that Mr Ghafoor had not made a valid request for information by virtue of not including his real name (para 29) and also because twitter was no a valid address for correspondence (para 28).
It has long been understood that in order for a request for information to be valid it must include a person’s real name. This is not something that is new and it is something that I mentioned in my previous consideration on this blog of the question of tweeted FOI requests. However, what I have not given much consideration to, until now, is the question of aliases as opposed to pseudonyms.
In my view the use of a pseudonym quite clearly fails to comply with the requirement that a requester include their real name. The purpose of a pseudonym is to hide a person’s true identity. This is, in my view, quite different to an alias. An alias is a name by which a person is also known, it is not something that is used to hide their identity; rather it is more akin to a name which is part of their identity.
In the case of Mr Ghafoor, the name FOI Kid is more of an alias than a pseudonym. It is a name by which he commonly goes, not to hide his identity (as evidence by his inclusion of his name in his twitter bio). He may only be known by that name within certain circles, but in my view that does not detract from the fact that ‘FOI Kid’ could be considered as part of his identity. It is a name by which he goes online and is identifiable within information rights circles.
What is someone’s real name? Is it the name that appears on their birth certificate? How many people do you know that do not go by the name that is on their birth certificate? For example, I have an uncle who is more commonly known by his middle name – many people will not have a clue what is true first name is. I know of others who also go by a name other than that on their birth certificate and again who people will not have any idea what their true name is.
Could a John Smith who trades as Smiths not be able to make a request for information in the name “Smiths”? I would say that he can because it is a name by which he commonly goes, in a professional capacity at least. Indeed, a public authority might want to know that it is John Smith of “Smiths” who is making the request because perhaps the tender exercise that Mr Smith is making a request for information about was one in which “Smiths” submitted a bid. Mr Smith might therefore be entitled to additional information under section 7 on of the Data Protection Act 1998 (the right of subject access) than someone other than him making the request.
Therefore, my view is that an alias by which someone has been going for some time would comply with the requirement to provide the name of the applicant in section 8 of the Data Protection Act 1998. In the case of Mr Ghafoor my view is that ‘FOI Kid’ is an alias so well established that it would comply with the requirements of section 8.
Address for Correspondence
The Tribunal also concluded that Mr Ghafoor did not make a valid request for information because twitter was unsuitable for responding to and made reference to the 140 character word limit. However, I disagree with this conclusion also.
Firstly, there are free services such as ‘Twitlonger’ which enable people (including public authorities) to send tweets longer than 140 characters. Furthermore, it is possible to attach media to tweets through the Twitter site and also a range of social media management services used by businesses and other organisations. While it might not be possible to send a full refusal notice or to disclose information through the 140 characters permitted by Twitter, it is however possible to attach a pdf letter and other attachments to tweets. In my view there is no difference between this and attaching letters and documents for disclosure to an E-mail. It might take multiple tweets to send the complete response together with all of the attachments to the requester, but the same is true for E-mail. File size limits often mean that multiple E-mails need to be sent in order to supply all of the information being disclosed by the public authority.
For those reasons I take the view that twitter is an appropriate address for correspondence and the Tribunal fell into error by concluding that it was not. Perhaps their error came about as a failure to full understand the exact parameters of the operation of twitter, but in my view it fell into error nonetheless.