Freedom of Information requests are supposed to be one of the few things in life that cost very little. That is unless you’re submitting a request to TfL.
According to Adrian Short, receiving answers for an FOI with TfL meant that he had to sign a contract promising that anything published wasn’t “detrimental” to the company. In short, he wasn’t allowed to use the information to write anything negative about the agency.
The sorry story began when Mr Short submitted an easy-to-answer Freedom of Information request to TfL about usage of Boris Bikes. Ironically he wanted the information to promote the scheme, which he thought was great.
However, TfL shot itself in the foot, asking Mr Short to enter into a contract. Its terms included: “2.1.2 [You shall] only use the Transport Data in accordance with these Terms and Conditions and the Syndication Developer Guidelines, and not use such information in any way that causes detriment to TfL or brings TfL into disrepute. The rights granted to You under these Terms and Conditions are limited to accessing and displaying or otherwise making available the Transport Data for the purposes stated by You in Your registration.”
As well as incurring the wrath of Mr Short TfL could also be in breach of the ICO regulations, which state that information must be supplied regardless of the identity and motives of the applicant.
“A request therefore has to be considered on the basis that it could have been made by any person; the identity of that person is not a material consideration when deciding whether or not to release information. It is for this reason that we do recommend as good practice that requests under obvious pseudonyms should normally be considered unless there is reason to think that any of the matters below need to be taken into account,” it says.
And Big Brother Watch has also shown its disgust at the agency.
Alex Deane director at the organisation said in a blog: “[This] is absolutely disgraceful. No public authority has the right to withhold data on the basis that it might be used to the detriment of that authority.”
He pointed out that the data didn’t “belong” to the authority – it belonged the public, who paid both for the services about which it is collated and for the collation.
“Part of the point of the Freedom of Information Act is that it might reveal something to the detriment of the Authority in question – that’s the purpose of facilitating openness and scrutiny in the first place. Without that capacity, if the data can only be used for positive purposes, then those submitting queries are simply unpaid press officers for the Authority concerned,” he added.
“We at Big Brother Watch are extremely concerned by this development. We use FoI for our research – whether it be into the number of CCTV cameras controlled by councils, the ability of officials to enter private property, monitoring microchips being inserted into millions of dustbins, breaches of privacy in medical records, the retention of DNA samples from innocent people on the state database, covert surveillance by local councils, CCTV cars operating on our streets, or money spent on surveillance cameras by local authorities, all of our reports have depended on the Freedom of Information Act to compel Authorities to disclose information about their activities.”
He added that all agencies should use the same legislation.
We contacted TfL to get the low down – it promises a response today.
*Update A spokesperson for TFL tells TechEye: “Transport for London takes its obligations under the Freedom of Information Act (FOI) extremely seriously and we provided a response to this FOI within 20 working days making clear that we would be publishing the remaining data on our website shortly and have since done so.
“TfL is recognised within the developer community to be one of the most forward thinking public sector organisations in relation to making our data available and have set up a developers’ area on our website providing a host of information. This move was universally welcomed in the developer community.
“The terms and conditions on the developers area relate to reuse of our data and does not inhibit right of access. Access and re-use are two separate things and it is normal practice to monitor re-use of IPR or copyrighted information when providing information in response to an FOI request.
“The reason this information is provided on the website is to provide value for money to London taxpayers and passengers. Saving information onto hard discs and sending securely through the post for one person is less cost efficient than making the same data available on the web for a large number of people.”