Over at Adrian Short's blog, a shocking story from someone who, it seems, has every sympathy for TfL.
Short submitted an easy-to-answer Freedom of Information request to TfL about usage of Boris Bikes (he is a big fan and, having helped to promote them, wanted to plug their success).
if I want to get a response to my FOI request from TfL I am asked to enter into a contract with them whose terms include:
"2.1.2 [You shall] only use the Transport Data in accordance with these Terms and Conditions and the Syndication Developer Guidelines, and 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."
So not only is TfL’s contract explicitly asking me to state my motive as a precondition of access, it also constrains me from using the information for any other purpose and arguably prevents me from using that information to criticise TfL, thereby causing it “detriment” or bringing it into “disrepute”. If I don’t agree to this they can deny access altogether and if I subsequently break the agreement in their view they can revoke access. This is a funny kind of free information.
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. Part of the point of the Freedom of Information Act is that it might reveal something to the detriment of the Authority in question – that's the purpose of facilitating openness and scrutiny in the first place. Without that capacity, if the data can only be used for positive purposes, then those submitting queries are simply unpaid press officers for the Authority concerned.
We at Big Brother Watch are extremely concerned by this development. We use FoI for our research – whether it be into the number of CCTV cameras controlled by councils, the ability of officials to enter private property, monitoring microchips being inserted into millions of dustbins, breaches of privacy in medical records, the retention of DNA samples from innocent people on the state database, covert surveillance by local councils, CCTV cars operating on our streets, or money spent on surveillance cameras by local authorities, all of our reports have depended on the Freedom of Information Act to compel Authorities to disclose information about their activities. Wherever you stand on the issues I've just listed, and the issues which might form the subject of future research we would hope to do using the same legislation, presumably you agree that there should be such discussion, per se. After all, they're spending our money and their behaviour governs the way we live, so we should know about it.
By and large I'm very pleased to say that most authorities comply with their obligations under the Act when responding to us (and we happily name and shame those that don't). But if TfL behaves likes this and can get away with it, then others will follow. Our research will become more difficult to conduct, or simply impossible. So will that of other organisations that hope to hold government to account. That's why this is so serious. We do (he said immodestly) enjoy some success in the media in doing reactive stories based on news emerging elsewhere, but the real purpose of any organisation like ours must be to carry out proper, original research. Behaviour like TfL's makes this very difficult. So – this is a call to arms. Please link to this blog post or to Adrian's original write-up on Facebook, on Twitter, on any blog to which you might have access. 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.
By Alex Deane
Hat tip: Dick Puddlecote
Transport for London has contacted BBW. A TfL spokesperson said:
“Transport for London takes its obligations under the Freedom of Information Act (FOI) extremely seriously and we provided a response to this FOI within 20 working days making clear that we would be publishing the remaining data on our website shortly and have since done so. TfL is recognised within the developer community to be one of the most forward thinking public sector organisations in relation to making our data available and have set up a developers’ area on our website providing a host of information. This move was universally welcomed in the developer community. 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. 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.”
Alex Deane comments: It seems to me that this hardly answers the suggestion that TfL attempt to fetter the uses to which the data might be put, as a condition of releasing it, something they have no right to do. Indeed, if anything, it confirms it.