Twitter found unsuitable means of communicating FOI request

27 November 2015

The First Tier Tribunal (Information Rights) (the Tribunal) has held that a request under the Freedom of Information Act 2000 made via Twitter is not valid.

The request was made by a Twitter user with the username @FOIkid for information held by the Department of Work and Pensions. The Information Commissioner found that the request was a valid request because under section 8 of FOIA the information available from the requester's Twitter handle provided an address for a response to be sent to and clearly displayed the requester's name.  The IC did note that Twitter could present problems when responding substantively to FOI requests due to the abbreviated nature of tweets. The IC found that this difficulty could easily be circumvented by sending information in a more conventional document format, perhaps linked to from a tweet. 

The Tribunal overturned the decision. They found that the requirements of section 8 of the FOIA had not been satisfied because the tweet had not included the requester's real name, just his twitter username. The Tribunal also found that Section 8 had not been satisfied as a Twitter username is not an address suitable for corresponding about FOIA requests. 

Section 8 of the FOIA does not expressly require a requester to give their real name. The Tribunal considered that in any event a public authority is entitled to know a requester's real name in order to consider whether a request is vexatious or may exceed the costs limit (see sections 12 and 14 of the FOIA). It should be noted that the Tribunal did not consider that the requester's name was available on his publicly available Twitter profile. Of course, a public authority is under a duty to provide advice and assistance to individuals making FOI requests. Taking the step of identifying the real name of a Twitter user does not seem unnecessarily burdensome in this context. Indeed, would the result have been different if the requester's Twitter username had contained his real name? 

The second reason given was that "a means of communication which is limited to 140 characters is unsuitable for correspondence between the public authority and the requester concerning the request." It is interesting to note that there is nothing in Section 8 of the FOIA that expressly requires that an address for correspondence must be an address "suitable" for correspondence on an FOIA request. There is clearly an element of subjectivity around the term "suitability." It is easy to see how a public authority's view of the suitability of a means of communication would differ from a tech savvy FOI requester. 

The decision of the Tribunal implies that Twitter should not be used as a means of submitting FOI requests and would appear to have some grave flaws. In any event the ruling of the Tribunal appears to place the ICO's guidance on FOI requests made through social media sites such a Twitter into some doubt. 

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