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Transport for London (TfL) is allegedly blocking attempts by the public to use Freedom of Information laws to obtain information from it, according to campaign group Big Brother Watch.

At issue is whether TfL has the right to impose terms and conditions on FOI requesters, limiting their use of any information to purposes favourable to TfL before it will release that information.

The story began back in October when Adrian Short, who describes himself as "a big fan of London’s Barclays Cycle Hire scheme", put in an FOI request to TfL for bike journey data. This was to support a free API service that he has created for developers, as well as a realtime 3D visualisation of bike availability and a simulator to help understand bike movement patterns, which he also built.

According to Short, nothing more was needed beyond "a single database query to fetch the times, origin and destination of each trip”. However, the information was not forthcoming.

Rather than providing the data as a one-off response to his FOI request, Matthew Towey, Information Governance Adviser to TfL, sent Short a message on 5 January stating that the data had now been uploaded on to the Developers' Area of the site.

Short is free to access the data provided he completes a registration form, which specifically states: "Before we give permission to use any feeds, we need to know how they will be used, where they will be used and how many people are likely to view them."

This, in turn, requires Short to accept contractual terms that included an undertaking (s2.1.2) that he "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".

When Adrian responded asking Tfl to "just send him the data", Mr Towey replied that he noted his "preference to be sent this data directly without having to register".

This neatly put Short on the back foot, apparently asking for special privileged access not granted to other developers. A simple FoI request has metamorphosed over the course of three months into something altogether different.

This is not likely to go down well with the Information Commissioner, who has previously pointed out (pdf)that "there are no references in the [Freedom of Information] Act indicating that anyone can be asked to provide a reason for requesting information".

More seriously, the Lord Chancellor’s code of practice on freedom of information states: "Authorities should be aware that the aim of providing assistance is to clarify the nature of the information sought, not to determine the aims or motivation of the applicant.

"Care should be taken not to give the applicant the impression that he or she is obliged to disclose the nature of his or her interest as a precondition to exercising the rights of access, or that he or she will be treated differently if he or she does (or does not)."

Alex Deane of campaign group Big Brother Watch wrote on the BBW website yesterday: "That 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. The data doesn't 'belong' to the authority - it belongs to us, the public, who paid both for the services about which it is collated and for the collation."

Adding that "most authorities comply with their obligations under the Act", he warns: "If you care about the future of Freedom of Information Act - or about the future of information, or the future of freedom - then it's up to you."

TfL, however, see themselves as the wronged party in this. A spokesman told us: "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.

They add: "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."

Meanwhile, a spokeswoman for the ICO confirmed that the issue does fall within its remit, and it is investigating a complaint.®

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