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David Higgerson: Tweeting FOI requests? ICO got this wrong

Last week we blogged about how the Information Commissioners Office’s had clarified where it stood on the use of Twitter to submit freedom of information requests, confirming that such requests may be valid.

But head of multimedia for Trinity Mirror Regionals David Higgerson wasn’t convinced that this was such a great idea. In a post on his blog he explains why, including the character limit imposed on Twitter, having to make a public request and the chances of a request not going direct to an FOI officer.

So when the ICO says that ‘Twitter is not the most effective channel for submitting or responding to freedom of information requests’ what it should actually be saying is: “Twitter is never a good way to deal with FOI requests.”

Read his post in full here…

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Can FOI requests be submitted on Twitter? Yes, says ICO

In its monthly newsletter, sent out yesterday (28 July), the Information Commissioners Office sought to clarify an interesting question: whether or not people can use Twitter to submit freedom of information requests. And the answer is yes.

While Twitter is not the most effective channel for submitting or responding to freedom of information requests, this does not mean that requests sent using Twitter are necessarily invalid. They can be valid requests in freedom of information terms and authorities that have Twitter accounts should plan for the possibility of receiving them.

… 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.

According to the ICO the key requirement is the request must state the name of the applicant, which may not be shown in the Twitter name but instead in a linked profile.

But the ICO does warn that if the requester does not give their real name, it is technically not a valid freedom of information request.

Whilst the authority may still choose to respond, the requester should be made aware that the Information Commissioner will not be able to deal with any subsequent complaint.

As for an address, as this is difficult given the limited length of a tweet, authorities are reminded they can ask the requester for an email address in order to provide a full response, or publish the requested information, or a refusal notice, on its website and tweet a link to that.

The ICO does add, however, that requesters are encouraged to use this channel responsibly. “If they do not, the authority could consider using the exemptions for vexatious and repeated requests in section 14 of the Freedom of Information Act”, the newsletter entry states.

Hatip: Andy Mabbet, aka pigsonthewing

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Malcolm Coles: Four sites already implementing cookie law

June 23rd, 2011 | No Comments | Posted by in Editors' pick, Legal

Malcolm Coles has posted four examples of UK websites already implementing the new EU cookie law that came into force on 26 May.

Websites were given a year to “get their house in order” by the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) and work towards getting web users to agree to accepting the dropping of cookies – small text files placed onto a users computer.

The ICO has warned companies, however, that they should not leave it until 25 May next year to start complying and has already written to some websites following complaints received since 26 May.

The independent body has received criticism for not telling websites exactly how to get users to agree to accepting cookies, but said sites do not necessarily have to opt for a tick box agreement and can instead find another way of getting users to take “positive action” in order to agree to cookies being dropped.

The four sites that Coles highlights as already implementing cookie law are: the ICO (they had to, didn’t they?), All Things D, the Radio Times and the Island Web Works website on the Isle of Man.

Here is the example from All Things D and Coles’ comment:

It reads: “Some of the advertisers and web analytics firms used on this site may place ‘tracking cookies’ on your computer. We are telling you about them right upfront, and we want you to know how to get rid of these tracking cookies if you like. Read more.

“This notice is intended to appear only the first time you visit the site on any computer.”

It only appears on your first visit to the site (I presume they use a cookie to do that!).

Malcolm Coles’ full post is at this link

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ICO receives cookies complaints less than two weeks after new EU law introduced

June 9th, 2011 | 1 Comment | Posted by in Events, Legal, Online Journalism

The Information Commissioner’s Office has received complaints about websites dropping cookies less that a fortnight after new rules were introduced. The ICO will now write to the websites concerned to issue a warning.

An EU directive became law in the UK on 26 May and states that websites can only drop cookies – small text files left by websites on a user’s computer – if a person has given prior consent.

Before the new rules came into force users had to be given the option to opt out of receiving cookies and similar files which are used to gather data, but now users must opt in unless a website deems that it is “strictly necessary” to drop a cookie.

The ICO has the power to fine websites, including news sites, up to £500,000 for non-compliance. Speaking at the ABC Interaction conference yesterday Katherine Vander from the ICO said financial penalties would only by levied on “persistent offenders”.

New rules were introduced last month but websites were given a year to demonstrate how they plan comply with the new rules.

Internet users have already complained to the ICO, an independent public body based in Cheshire whose role it is to enforce the data protection act and the freedom of information act, which receives 30,000 complaints a year about data protection.

The UK is said to be leading the way in being early to adopt the EU cookie directive but there has been much backlash by the online industry against the new rules as cookies gather valuable audience data.

The ICO has received negative comments about how it has handled publicity around the new rules. “We’ve been criticised for not being more prescriptive. But we’re not best-placed to tell you,” Vander said.

“We fully recognise the challenges of implementing these requirements.

“You can be very clever how you get consent,” she told the conference, which included news organisations, suggesting the industry should seek to find ways to ask users to opt in to receive cookies. “It doesn’t have to involve ticking a box but it has to involve someone taking a positive action in some way,” she said.

Zuzanna Gierlinska from Microsoft Media Network, which handles display advertising, proposed the industry encourages transparency in the collection of consumers’ data.

“We operate in a Wild West environment when it comes to data. It’s bought and sold and it’s mostly misunderstood by the user.

“Lack of transparency breeds mistrust and threatens the online industry.”

Zuzanna Gierlinska suggests self-regulation of the advertising industry though companies adopting the so-called Online Behavioural Advertising Framework, adding an icon to sit beside advertising to tell the consumer if data is being collected.

Referring to the fact that the government is working with browser manufacturers to develop in-browser solutions, Ashley Friedlein, CEO and founder of Econsultancy, who also spoke at the event, said: “Personally, I’ve always felt doing this at a browser level is the only sensible solution.”

He added: “I can’t see what is currently being asked is practical so I think everyone is going to ignore it until something bad happens.”

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Media Guardian: Fresh phone hacking investigation into John Terry affair stories

April 12th, 2010 | No Comments | Posted by in Editors' pick, Journalism

More from Nick Davies in the investigative journalist’s ongoing exposés of phone hacking by the British press: the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) has launched a new, official inquiry into suspected interception of voicemail messages linked to tabloid reporting of Vanessa Perroncel and her alleged affair with England and Chelsea footballer John Terry.

The evidence focuses on the phone records of Vanessa Perroncel and of one of her close friends, Antonia Graham. Perroncel was accused by tabloids of having an affair with Terry.

One allegation involves the interception of a live telephone call between the two women, a more serious offence than listening to phone messages.

Published in February, the findings of a Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee inquiry into press standards, privacy and libel said the News of the World and other newspapers turned a blind eye to illegal phone hacking and ‘blagging’ (the practice of obtaining information through deception), contradicting a Press Complaints Commission report published in November.

According to Davies’ new report, Perroncel’s lawyers have also formally warned seven national newspapers that she is planning to sue them for privacy breaches.

Full story at this link…

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The police’s “narrow” approach to phone hacking: not a crime if message had been listened to first

Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger raised what he said was a little known fact about phone hacking evidence, in yesterday’s press regulation debate in the House of Lords.

He had been told by Metropolitan Police Assistant Commissioner Yates, he said, that the police only considered the interception of phone messages an offence if they hadn’t been listened to.

Once messages were stored after they were listened to by the recipient, subsequent access by a third party was not considered a criminal offence. The public should be aware of the “narrow definition” of phone hacking, the Guardian editor warned.

As reported in last week’s Culture, Media and Sport select committee report:

“The police also told us that under Section 1 of the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA) it is only a criminal offence to access someone’s voicemail message if they have not already listened to it themselves. This means that to prove a criminal offence has taken place it has to be proved that the intended recipient had not already listened to the message. This means that the hacking of messages that have already been opened is not a criminal offence and the only action the victim can take is to pursue a breach of privacy, which we find a strange position in law.”

The committee recommended that “Section 1 of the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act is amended to cover all hacking of phone messages”.

“Narrow definition” line is a “convenient PR shelter for Scotland Yard”, argues Davies

The Guardian’s evidence of widespread phone hacking attempts contradicted police reports that only a ‘handful’ of victims had been targeted, so Scotland Yard is trying to “justify its position” by raising the narrow legal definition of the criminal offence, Guardian journalist Nick Davies told Journalism.co.uk.

Davies also challenges the legality of any kind of phone hacking:

“The narrow legal definition is highly contentious. The idea is that it is illegal to listen to somebody’s voicemail only if they have not themselves already heard it. This not written in the law at all; it was clearly not parliament’s intention. It’s an interpretation – not one that has been tested and accepted by a court, simply something that was said during a legal conference at the Crown Prosecution Service while the police were investigating the original case.

“It was said by David Perry, Crown counsel in the case, but he didn’t even produce a written opinion and never mentioned it in court when [Clive] Goodman and [Glenn] Mulcaire came up.” A future court may or may not agree with this definition, Davies added. “At the moment, however, it is a convenient PR shelter for Scotland Yard who are embarrassed by their handling of the case.”

Satchwell claims phone hacking case has ‘grey areas’; challenges Guardian’s proof

The liveliest part of yesterday’s House of Lords debate came when executive director of the Society of Editors, Bob Satchwell, challenged some of the Guardian’s claims and insisted there were “grey areas” in the case.

Journalist Nick Davies vehemently disagrees: the black and white is there, he later told Journalism.co.uk, but newspapers and the Press Complaints Commission don’t want to see it.

“Satchwell says editors don’t know the truth about all the material confiscated by the Information Commissioner’s Office from [private investigator] Steve Whittamore in March 2003 because the ICO didn’t investigate it. That isn’t correct.

“The ICO analysed all the material and produced spreadsheets – one for each newspaper organisation – and the spreadsheets lists all of the journalists who asked Whittamore to find confidential information, all of the targets, all of the information requested, how it was obtained, how much was paid.

“The ICO and police worked together to prepare three court cases: one led to four convictions, the other two collapsed for technical reasons. You really can’t say that there wasn’t an investigation. Furthermore, when the new information commissioner, Christopher Graham, gave evidence to the media select committee, he said he would not publish the spreadsheets, but he clearly indicated his willingness to talk to any editor who got in touch in search of detail.”

No editor has asked for extra information from ICO
“I checked last week with the ICO as to how many editors had now got in touch to ask which of their journalists are named in the spreadsheets and also to ask whether the PCC had approached them and asked for information,” said Davies.

“The answer was that no editor and nobody from the PCC had asked.” Furthermore, Davies said, he had written detailed stories about the contents of the spreadsheets.

“So, if editors are still in a grey area on all this, it’s because they refuse to look at the facts in black and white, even though the facts are there for them.”

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Nick Davies told Commons committee in April that PCC phone hacking inquiry flawed

July 9th, 2009 | 2 Comments | Posted by in Journalism, Legal

You may recall that back in April Nick Davies gave evidence to the House of Commons Culture, Media and Sport select committee, for its review into press standards, privacy and libel.

In the course of that session he claimed there was ‘a real will on the part of the PCC [Press Complaints Commission] to avoid uncovering the truth about phone hacking’ and that newspapers still used private investigators: “It is wrong but they are not doing anything about it and that continues despite Motorman [investigation undertaken by the Information Commissioner’s Office into alleged offences under data protection legislation.] All that has happened is that they have got a little bit more careful about it. I actually got to know that network of private investigators who were exposed in Motorman. Years after that I was in the office of one of them and he was taking phone calls from newspapers while I was there.”

The committee chairman, John Whittingdale, said: “We did do an investigation both into Motorman and into Goodman so I do not want to revisit old ground too much”.

The same committee which today announced it will open a new inquiry ‘into the Guardian revelations about the use of illegal surveillance techniques by News International newspapers’ (Guardian.co.uk).

Yesterday Nick Davies’ Guardian exclusive – which reported Murdoch papers paid £1m to silence victims of phone hacking – alleged that the evidence posed difficult questions for the PCC: it has ‘claimed to have conducted an investigation, but failed to uncover any evidence of illegal activity,’ it was reported.

Davies is no friend of the Press Complaints Commission – as reported on Journalism.co.uk before – and used his appearance in front of the committee in April to argue that the ‘PCC’s performance is so weak that it threatens the concept of self-regulation.’

The PCC has stated today, in light of the new reports, that ‘any suggestion that further transgressions have occurred since its report was published in 2007 will be investigated without delay.’

Now, let’s look back at Davies’ comments in the Commons in April (from uncorrected evidence on House of Commons site). Davies laid the bait for us all, but it would seem only he pursued his allegations against News of the World, to secure yesterday’s scoop:

Mr Davies: It is that word that Roy [Greenslade] has just used that is the important one, their independence. They [PCC] are not sufficiently independent to do their job properly; they are not functioning as an independent referee. You could see it, for example, in the way they handled the Clive Goodwin [sic] story. There are newspapers publishing stories all over Fleet Street; there is a whole lot of hacking going on, hacking into mobile phones. They conducted an inquiry which was set up in such a way that it could not possibly disclose the truth about that illegal activity. Why? Why did they not conduct a proper, independent inquiry? It was the same with the information commissioner after Operation Motorman. We used the Freedom of Information Act on the information commissioner and got hold if the e-mails and letters between the commissioner and the Press Complaints Commission. You can see there the information commissioner saying, “Look, we have just busted this private eye. It is horrifying what newspapers are doing. Will you put out a clear warning to these journalists that they must obey the law?” The short answer was, “No, not if we can help it”. You may be familiar with all this —–

Q435 Chairman: We had an inquiry into Motorman.

Mr Davies: Did you have the e-mails and so on?

Q436 Chairman: We had representatives of News International and so on.

(…)

Mr Davies: Also, when he [Paul Dacre] goes into hospital to have operations on his heart, there is always a message sent round Fleet Street saying, “Mr Dacre’s in hospital, please do not report it”. Medical records are supposed to be plundered by Harry Hack with beer on his breath and egg on his tie. It is wrong but they are not doing anything about it and that continues despite Motorman. All that has happened is that they have got a little bit more careful about it. I actually got to know that network of private investigators who were exposed in Motorman. Years after that I was in the office of one of them and he was taking phone calls from newspapers while I was there. It has not stopped; it has just got a bit more careful. It had got so casual that every reporter in the newsroom was allowed to ring up and commission illegal access to confidential information, now they have pulled it back so that you have to get the news editor to do it or the news desk’s permission. It is still going on and it is against the law.

Q446 Paul Farrelly: Do you think the PCC missed a trick with its own standing reputation in not summoning Mr Coulson?

Mr Greenslade: I wrote at the time and have maintained ever since that the Goodman affair was a very, very black moment in the history of the PCC. This man was jailed for breaking the law. His editor immediately resigned but there were huge questions to ask about the culture of the News of the World newsroom which only the man in charge of that newsroom could answer. When I challenged the PCC about why they had failed to call Mr Coulson they said that he was no longer a member of the press. That seems to me to be a complete abnegation of the responsibilities of the PCC for the public good. In other words, to use a phrase Nick has already used, it was getting off with a technicality.

Mr Davies: If you say to Coulson, “Come and give evidence even though you are no longer an editor” and if he says, “No” then that is an interesting tactical failure on his part. It is not just the editor of the paper; what about the managing editor? Why not call Stuart Kuttner, the managing editor of the News of the World, who has been there for years and who has a special responsibility for contracts and money? Why not call him to give evidence? There was a real will on the part of the PCC to avoid uncovering the truth about phone hacking.

Q447 Chairman: We did do an investigation both into Motorman and into Goodman so I do not want to revisit old ground too much.

Mr Davies: It is what it tells you about the PCC.

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Links for ICO’s call for senior public officials’ (including BBC) salary bands to be publicly available

February 23rd, 2009 | No Comments | Posted by in Broadcasting, Media releases

“Senior public officials salary bands should be publicly available as a matter of routine, according to new Guidance published today by the Information Commissioners Office (ICO)”, the ICO said, in a release today.

“Salary details, bonuses and performance related pay should be in the public domain to the nearest £5,000 band when there is a legitimate public interest. Disclosing exact salaries will only be required in exceptional circumstances,” the ICO said.

The Independent reported the ICO has said that “highly paid executives and presenters working for the BBC, and bosses of the newly nationalised banks, must disclose details of salaries and bonuses.

And here is where you can find that information:

Download the PDF of the release here: http://www.ico.gov.uk/upload/documents/pressreleases/2009/salaries_guidance_final230209.pdf

Download the PDF of the Guidance here:http://www.ico.gov.uk/upload/documents/library/freedom_of_information/practical_application/salaries_v1.pdf

Two examples concerning the BBC from the Guidance:

  • “The Commissioner determined that the BBC should disclose the salary band of the Controller of Continuing Drama, but not his exact salary, which was individually negotiated. He found that the legitimate public interest outweighed the intrusion of disclosing the salary band but not the additional intrusion of disclosing an exact salary. (ICO decision notice FS50070465, March 2008)”
  • “The Commissioner decided that BBC Northern Ireland did not have to release the fee paid to a presenter. The fee had been decided in confidential negotiations in accordance with the standard practice in the industry, and was therefore properly treated differently from the salary of a senior employee. (ICO decision notice FS50067416, January 2008).”
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UK FOI blog: Possible funding cut for FOI

Minutes from a recent meeting of the Information Commissioner’s Office’s (ICO) Executive Team suggest ‘possible reductions in grant in aid’, which would affect freedom of information.

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Press Gazette: Freelancers must register or face fine, warns ICO

August 8th, 2008 | No Comments | Posted by in Editors' pick, Freelance

The Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) has urged freelance journalists to register as ‘data controllers’, because the personal information the handling as part of their work is covered by the Data Protection Act.

Freelancers who do not register with the ICO could face a substantial fine.

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