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Cambridgeshire cops get coy with FOI

Keeping schtum on Scorpions shenanigans

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Cambridgeshire Police has emerged as the latest force that prefers not to explain itself to the public – and then not to explain why it won’t explain itself.

Back in December 2008, following the Internet Watch Foundation’s (IWF) controversial decision to block images of the Scorpions album cover on Wikipedia, a member of the public sent Cambridgeshire an FOI request. They asked: "Please disclose… what is in the communications between the Police and the Internet Watch Foundation that relate to an image on Wikipedia of the cover of an album by rock band The Scorpions."

Back came the response on 6 January 2009: Cambridgeshire Police would neither confirm nor deny whether it held information falling within the scope of the request.

By way of reason, they cited an exemption provided by section 30(3) of the Freedom of Information Act 2000, which is primarily concerned with information relating to criminal proceedings. That is, if a public authority is in the process of charging an individual with a crime, or investigating to see whether such a charge would be a matter worthy of charging, then information relating to that investigation would be exempt.

This refusal was met, on 10 January, by a request that the Police explain the basis for their decision. That drew the further response on 25 February to the effect that the police had decided they were right first time round – with no additional information as to why they thought they might be so.

The matter was then referred to the Office of the Information Commissioner. Cambridgeshire Police finally explained, in June, that the refusal was intended to ensure that it did not become known which police force the IWF had consulted about the image referred to in the request (if indeed they had).

However, as the Information Commissioner notes in a judgment published on 21 September, Cambridgeshire still did not explain how this matter qualified for the relevant exemption – nor what harm it felt might follow publication of this information.

Cambridgeshire Police now have until 26 October to either comply with the original request, or lodge a further appeal against this ruling.

The matter raises two issues. First, it is quite possible that the IWF did not refer this matter to any police force in the first place.

When images are referred to the IWF, they have two possible courses of action: where an image is hosted in the UK or on a UK-based site, a crime is possibly being committed within the UK, and the IWF will refer the matter to the relevant police authority for investigation. However, in respect of all other images hosted outside the UK, the IWF must make thousands of decisions every month; referring each of these to a local police force would be a waste of resources, as well as making a mockery of their intended role as a rapid response to indecent images online.

IWF employees receive training in the law from police, and are presumed to be at least as competent as most police authorities in determining whether an image is likely to be indecent.

Since this matter was a question of blocking, it is quite possible no police authority was consulted.

The second issue this raises is the increasing sensitivity of police authorities to releasing information that can be used to create an overall picture of how police authorities function. The principle appears to be based on a fear that if criminals are able to determine which authorities are less efficient at responding to certain types of crime, they might move their activities to those police areas.

This possibly credits criminals with a far greater degree of sophstication than they possess – and would in time mean the end to the publication of all comparative force statistics. ®

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