Tweet Tweet? #silencingFOIontwitter

Is a request for information made in a tweet a valid request within the meaning of sections 1 and 8 FOIA? Not in Ghafoor v Information Commissioner (EA/2015/0140). The FTT held that section 8(1) requires the request for information to be made using the “real name” of the person making it, and that the provision of an address for correspondence must one which is “suitable for correspondence” between the requestor and the public authority about the request.

In Mr Ghafoor’s case, his Twitter handle does not contain his real name (it is the well-known @FOIkid account, tweeting about all matters information rights), and the public authority should not, in the view of the FTT, be obliged to look anywhere else for it (even in the Twitter profile itself below the handle). Moreover, a 140 character tweet is not a suitable method of correspondence concerning the request. The FTT did agree that if a request has been validly made through one address, section 11 obliges the public authority to respond to that address and not insist on doing so via some other sort of address (posting a letter when the request was in an email, for example).

The case is fact-specific, and does not necessarily preclude a request being made from a Twitter account with a ‘real name’ in the handle, at least where the information can be properly responded to in tweet form. However, the emphasis on provision of the requestor’s real name – to enable the proper consideration of the use of sections 12 and 14 the FTT held – is problematic. What if an email request is made from an email address which does not clearly show a name, or it is a name but the public authority has no way of checking whether is really a Mr David Smith or is in fact called David Jones? What proof of the real name is required? What if a request is made from a company which does not provide its full registered company name? The judgment might suggest public authorities can too readily answer that the request is invalid, and the reading in of “real” into section 8(1)(b) may be a word too far. There is an argument that the FTT has switched the focus too much onto the requestor rather than the request. Whether Twitter is a suitable method of communication may also be open to argument in some requests, although it plainly would be difficult to properly respond in others and there is no legal obligation on the public authority to publish its answer and link to it (not least because that would reveal the ‘real name’ of the requestor). It will be interesting to see if the issue is re-litigated in other circumstances.

In the meantime, it appears the FTT is fighting back against the social media age. No #ff for the First-tier Tribunal.

Christopher Knight