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ICO tells public sector to respond to Twitter

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The Information Commissioner's Office (ICO) has told public authorities with Twitter accounts that they must respond to freedom of information (FoI) requests made via the micro-blogging site.

It has said in its July 2011 newsletter that, although Twitter is not an ideal channel for submitting or responding to requests, it "does not mean that requests sent using Twitter are necessarily invalid". It made the statement after a number of public authorities had asked for guidance on the issue.

An ICO spokeswoman told GGC: "Public authorities that proactively use Twitter as a channel to communicate with their audience must recognise that it is a two-way conversation, and that information requests can therefore legitimately be made."

The judgment means that Twitter users can now send an FoI request to their authority using the @ function within a 140-character long update and expect a response within 20 working days.

The limit on the length of a tweet is prohibitive to issuing a full response, so the ICO has recommended that information should be emailed to the applicant or published on the authority's website with a link tweeted in reply.

It made clear that it does not expect the move to cause an increase in the number of FoI requests, and that tweeted requests would still be subject to the guidelines of the Freedom of Information Act 2000.

For example, section 8 stipulates that requests must state an address "for correspondence" and the name of the applicant. This means that the Twitter user's real name should be visible in their public profile, which is often not the case. A failure to meet this condition would lead to the information commissioner declining to deal with any subsequent complaint.

Tweeted FoI requests must also comply with section 14 of the Act, which prohibits vexatious and repeat requests and allows councils to issue a refusal notice if a request can fairly be seen as obsessive, harassing, distressing or pose a significant burden in terms of expense and distraction.

The spokeswoman said: "This is not about creating an extra burden for public authorities. Rather, we want to make authorities aware so that they can be prepared for any requests that are made in this way. We encourage both users and public authorities to take a common sense approach.

"We are very aware of the resource burdens public authorities are facing and this is why we added the reference to vexatious requests in the newsletter – to ensure the facility is not abused. This is simply a different avenue for submitting a request that some requesters may choose to use."

The ICO is looking to use feedback to develop guidance on responding to tweeted requests, but made clear that it does not expect all public authorities to have Twitter accounts.

This article was originally published at Guardian Government Computing.

Guardian Government Computing is a business division of Guardian Professional, and covers the latest news and analysis of public sector technology. For updates on public sector IT, join the Government Computing Network here.

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