Can you make a Freedom of Information request via Twitter?

I subscribe to a mailing list on United Kingdom Freedom of Information issues. Ironically, it doesn’t seem to have public archives, so I’m not going to name it here, and the quotes below are therefore anonymised.

One of the regular participants recently posted this:

The just published ICO newsletter contains the following :

The ICO has also been asked whether a request in a tweet that only refers to an authority in an @mention, for example @ICOnews, is really directed to and received by that authority. The ICO’s view is that it is. Twitter allows the authority to check for @mentions of itself, and so it has in effect received that request, even though it was not sent directly to the authority like an email or letter.

Armchair auditors at work

Which has led to a series of comments and questions, which I’ve read with a growing sense of disbelief. Some are shown below, with my replies:

Does that mean that an FOI request pinned to a public notice board in a library has been received as we can check that just as easily as an @mention? What about letters to the local rag ? Is there a logical difference here?
Yes; there is a logical difference. The council chooses to operate a Twitter account, thereby creating a reasonable expectation that it will communicate via that channel.
How on Earth do you respond in 140 characters or fewer?
You post the response on your website, and tweet the URL.
How long would @mentions be stored on an authority’s feed?
Irrelevant. They’re permanently on Twitter.com — all you need to do is to bookmark them.
What happens if Twitter suddenly implodes and you no longer have access to it?
In the unlikely event that Twitter permanently disappears in the 28 days you have in which to reply, you’d reaonably be able to say that you were prevented from replying. How much money do you want to put on that happening?
Most users will have a [pseudonym] type user name […] so couldn’t it be argued in the majority of cases that they have not provided their name and the request isn’t valid anyway?
A request is not invalid just because a pseudonym (a uniquely identifying pseudonym) is used.
Why stop at Twitter? There are a myriad of different social media on the web.
Indeed. And FoI requests addressed to an eligible organisation’s self-created presence on them should be answered, as they would if received by e-mail or post.

It would be nice to see FoI officers in councils, universities and other public bodies discussing innovative ways in which to make information available, rather than finding reasons not to.

Image credit: Deutsche Fotothek‎ via Wikimedia Commons, under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Germany.

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About Andy Mabbett

Enjoying my new freelance career, helping organisations to understand on-line communities, open content, and related issues.
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8 Responses to Can you make a Freedom of Information request via Twitter?

  1. Pingback: Staffroom Secrets | Blog | Can FOI requests be submitted on Twitter? Yes, says ICO

  2. Crankcaller says:

    “It would be nice to see FoI officers in councils, universities and other public bodies discussing innovative ways in which to make information available, rather than finding reasons not to.”

    It would also be nice if we didn’t receive crap from lazy journalists fishing for nonsense stories. e. g. Most stolen books from libraries, how much was spent last fiscal year on fireworks etc. Don’t get me wrong – the act is a good thing – but the same/similar queries year in year out get tired quickly.

  3. Andy Mabbett says:

    @Crankcaller

    “Crap” and “nonsense” to you may be a matter of interest to the pubic. Nonetheless, I agree that journalists and others often overstep the mark, and there are a number of ways you can deal with such queries. If they’re from journalists, your press officer colleagues should be assisting you. For example, you could publish a post on your blog or website, saying “We received this query from the Day Scandal” (or just “from a newspaper”). “The answer is £1234, and the cost of servicing this request was £321″.

    Of course, what you should be doing is publishing such spending figures – and any information which is requested repetitively – on your website as a matter of course, so there’s no need for the request to be made. If it is anyway, your correct response is simply to refer the journalist concerned to the relevant page.

  4. Geoff Coleman says:

    I think the Twitter account would ideally be managed by the FOI department at a particular organisation, rather than requests being sent to a general council Twitter account. Otherwise you run the risk of requests being missed or not passed on.

    I do like the idea of putting a cost on the published FOI answer – especially for the more spurious requests.

    As for posting answers to regular requests, we do this on http://birminghamnewsroom.com/freedom-of-information-and-useful-data/ in an attempt to take the pressure off an overworked FOI team.

  5. anil says:

    @Crankcaller

    Most stolen books from a university is the public interest, as is the amount of money spent on fireworks, when most students are facing a 9k bill for tuition fees. More worrying is when universities are trying to cover up corruption and other underhand practices that makes phone-hacking look like childsplay and think they can get away with it.

  6. crankcaller says:

    @Andy Mabbet
    That’s a good idea about publishing the repeated queries.

    @Geoff Coleman
    I also like the idea of putting a cost on the published FOI answer – especially for the more spurious requests. How would this tie in with data protection? Geoff Coleman asked this and it cost this much?

    @anil
    Most stolen books – as a financial value, yes this is in the public interest. The actual titles though are usually what’s asked for – not their value, so a puff piece about author A or cookery books being the most stolen titles from libraries. Should we not be purchasing a title as they are stolen more often? Items that are popular for theft in libraries usually are behind counters/secured in my experience.

  7. Geoff Coleman says:

    @crankcaller I think it would work exactly as you’ve said: ( ) submitted an FOI asking: ( ) The answer can be found here. Responding to the request cost ( )

    Don’t see why there would be a problem with data protection but you could always just publish the request and answer with no reference to the individual or organisation submitting the FOI.

    That would still highlight the cost of answering requests, so the public can decide if individual requests represent a good use of public money.

  8. This blog posting is directly about the Freedom of Information Act but should be considered as good guidance when considering using the Freedom of Information (Scotland) Act 2002.

    I’ve made a couple of posts on the subject on my blog.

    I believe requests to official twitter accounts & facebook pages are totally valid under FOISA although the scottish information commissioner is yet to make a ruling on the matter.

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