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Public bodies must reply to FOI-compliant requests made through Twitter, ICO says

Twitter is a valid medium for freedom of information requests to be filed, the Information Commissioner's Office (ICO) has said.08 Aug 2011

The ICO, which is responsible for ensuring public bodies comply with FOI laws, said requests made on the mico-blogging network could be compliant if individuals included their real names when making requests. It said some of the technology Twitter uses complies with the demands FOI laws place on requests for information.

"While Twitter is not the most effective channel for submitting or responding to freedom of information requests, this does not mean that requests sent using Twitter are necessarily invalid," the ICO said in a statement.

"They can be valid requests in freedom of information terms and authorities that have Twitter accounts should plan for the possibility of receiving them," it said.

The Freedom of Information Act  and the Freedom of Information (Scotland) Act came into full force on 1 January 2005, giving individuals the right for the first time to demand access to information held by Government departments and public bodies.

Under the laws anyone of any nationality living anywhere in the world can make a written request for information and expect a response within 20 working days. The public authority will be obliged to meet that request unless exemptions apply or unless meeting it will be too costly or difficult.

In order to qualify as legitimate, requests for information must be made in writing, state the name of the applicant along with an address where responses can be sent and describe the information requested. Requests are considered to be made in writing even if they are electronically sent, such as in an email, are legible and can be referred to in the future.

The ICO said FOI requests made through Twitter are not valid if they do not contain individuals' real names.

"A Twitter name may not be the requester's real name, but the real name may be shown in their linked profile. If the requester does not give their real name, it is technically not a valid freedom of information request. Whilst the authority may still choose to respond, the requester should be made aware that the Information Commissioner will not be able to deal with any subsequent complaint," it said.

The ICO said that Twitter accounts are valid addresses where requesters of information can be sent correspondence by public bodies. However, because Twitter limits communications to 140 characters, public bodies may often have to find alternative ways to notify requesters of results of FOI requests, it said.

"The length of a tweet makes it difficult for the authority to respond fully, but there are ways of dealing with this," the ICO's statement said. "The authority could ask the requester for an email address in order to provide a full response. Alternatively, it could publish the requested information, or a refusal notice, on its website and tweet a link to that".

Twitter users with publically accessible accounts are informed of messages that contain their account name when other users include the name immediately preceded by '@' in messages. Twitter refers to this system as the '@mention'. The ICO said that FOI requests filed in Twitter messages that only refer to public authorities using these references are legitimately aimed for the attention of those organisations.

"The ICO has also been asked whether a request in a tweet that only refers to an authority in an @mention, for example @ICOnews, is really directed to and received by that authority. The ICO's view is that it is," the ICO's statement said. "Twitter allows the authority to check for @mentions of itself, and so it has in effect received that request, even though it was not sent directly to the authority like an email or letter".

The ICO warned that Twitter users should use the social network "responsibly" when making FOI requests and warned that FOI laws allow public authorities to refuse to answer "vexatious and repeated requests".