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Ofcom stands up to Information Commissioner

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Ofcom is going to the High Court to stop the British public getting access to a list of every mobile phone mast in the UK.

The telco regulator is appealing the Information Commissioner's decision that the public has the right to know where cellphone masts are located.

Last September, an Information Tribunal ruled that the public should have access to a list of every base station in the UK. Though Ofcom argued that this is an unreasonable intrusion into the privacy of the network operators, it was told the information must be made available.

Sitefinder is an online tool which was established following the Stewart Report, which said that while there was no evidence of transmitters being bad but the public should still have the right to know where they are.

The information behind Sitefinder is supplied voluntarily, but through clenched teeth, by network operators.

In 2007 an Information Tribunal upheld a Freedom of Information request and ruled that Ofcom must provide access to the Sitefinder database as a whole, in addition to allowing people to search small areas as they can now.

The network operators responded by saying they were under no obligation to provide the information, and if it was going to be shared in that fashion they might decide to keep it to themselves in future.

After three months of "constructive discussions" the mobile operators, excluding T-Mobile, have agreed to provide one last package of cell data while Ofcom takes the Information Commissioner to the High Court with their increasingly desperate claims about commercial confidentiality and terrorist risk.

T-Mobile hasn't provided any cell information since August 2005, and generally joins Ofcom in court as a representative of the rest of the mobile industry, but the other operators have now provided updated information to the SiteFinder database.

Ofcom, with T-Mobile, has tried various fanciful claims, and physics-based arguments, to prevent the release of the bundled information which they admit could be pieced together using the existing service in about 1,000 man-hours.

Even if you believe there is no health risk from cellular transmissions it's hard to argue that the public shouldn't have access to information on what's being broadcast locally, and with the number of base stations set to increase massively over the next few years there's never been a better time for mandatory reporting.

But with Ofcom fighting every step of the way it seems likely we'll be reduced to guessing what the tower next door is sending. ®

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