Few of our users realise this, but hardly a week goes by without mySociety receiving a legal threat relating to our Freedom of Information website WhatDoTheyKnow.com.
These might refer to perceived libel in a request, or to material released in error, which an authority now wishes to retract. In the normal course of things, our team deal with legal issues quickly and diligently, occasionally consulting our lawyer – and generally speaking, they never need concern our users.
On Friday November 7th, at 2:17pm, we received a ‘letter before action’ from Enfield Council’s legal department, asking us to do two things: first, that we take down a certain request, and secondly that we provide them with information on the person who had raised it.
Well, that’s a quick turnaround even by the standards of our crack team of volunteers, even if it had been clear that Enfield had a good legal case. And, once we looked closely, we weren’t at all sure that they did.
The FOI request which had triggered this message seems like a fairly standard one: it asks for information about the closure of public libraries, and how much those closures would contribute towards the council’s stated target of making £65 million of savings over the next three years.
It is worth mentioning that the name this FOI request was filed under was clearly and demonstrably an impersonation – it claimed to be from the CEO of Enfield Council. In fact, we’d already been in correspondence with the council over this, and, as impersonation is against our site policies, it was a quick and easy decision for us to remove the name.
We will not disclose your email address to anyone unless we are obliged to by law, or you ask us to.
– and indeed, we have only done so once, when compelled to by a court order, in all the site’s long history (currently standing at over 200,000 FOI requests and over 71,000 users). The other point was slightly more tricky. We do our best to run WhatDoTheyKnow in the most responsible manner possible, for our users and for public authorities. We often have to tread a delicate line in order to do so.
Often there is a good reason that public bodies want information taken down, and the team routinely act rapidly to remove personal information, and other material that public bodies accidentally release, from our website. When we do take material down, wherever possible we do so transparently, leaving a note explaining what’s been removed and why.
But, where possible, we do not remove a request from the site, unless there is a very clear reason why its publication is breaking the law. Putting the mischievous name of the requester aside, this appeared to be a standard request about libraries and funding.
On occasions, like this, when requests to take material down appear unfounded or overzealous, we challenge them.
The notice before action stated that ‘the public availability of this information is or is likely to be highly damaging to Enfield Council’s ability to properly carry out those projects’. It also referred to ‘confidential and commercially sensitive’ material having been released, but we can find little within the request that is not publicly available elsewhere – for example, on the council’s own website one can find details of the Library Plan Development consultation document, containing very similar information – and nothing that seems obviously sensitive.
The council have recently been reported as saying:
“No decisions have been made yet on the type of library or the location of libraries. The final decision on the library service, location and different types of libraries will be made in February or March next year following the conclusion of this consultation.”
So – if a decision has not yet been made, the number of libraries to be closed cannot be a leak, as the information does not yet exist.
For those reasons, we responded to Enfield Council ask for clarification. We took down the request in question as a precaution, while we awaited this clarification. We gave them slightly longer than 43 minutes in which to do so — in fact, we contacted them on 10 November asking them to reply by 5pm on 14 November with clarification on their position.
For some reason it took them until 13 November to say they wouldn’t be able to reply substantively by then, so we asked them to respond instead by 5pm today — otherwise we would make the request public again.
No clarification has yet arrived. That being the case, we have made the request live.
Image: Michael Newman (CC)
Interesting, because a similar case happened in Leicester. We have been trying to drum up enough public interest to stop the closure of the Library, but have been flatly told that we are not allowed to state that the Library may be closed.
Then we were asked to attend a meeting about the Library closure before being told it was happening behind closed doors.
So, we are unable to talk about or request information about a possible Council decision, despite it not being made yet.
Perhaps, TPTB want to revert to the old days when us plebs were illiterate and unable to read. We’re less of a threat to them if so.