Mickey Mouse FoI requests - we know where you live

Government organisations are being encouraged to refuse public requests for information if they believe real names have not been supplied, under new guidelines from the Information Commissioner's Office (ICO). Freedom of Information complaints from "Mickey Mouse" or "Mrs Sue D Nym" will not be accepted by the information commissioner, the new guidance says.

Public bodies like councils are also advised they can reject requests from people using "obvious pseudonyms". But they should consider whether they are happy to release the details anyway, in the spirit of "disclosure to the world at large".

The commissioner's office recommends a "low key approach" to confirming names.
Anyone requesting information must give their name and "an address for correspondence", under the terms of the Freedom of Information Act.

In new guidance published on Tuesday, the Information Commissioner's Office suggests ways of determining "what constitutes a real name". For example, Mr Arthur Thomas Roberts could satisfy the requirements of the FOI Act by calling himself Arthur Roberts, A T Roberts or Mr Roberts but not by simply signing off "Arthur", or "A T R".

The main thing is that the person has given "a reasonable indication" of their identity. But public bodies are well within their rights to turn down requests from obvious pseudonyms, it says.

The commissioner's office urges authorities to "apply common sense" and remember that one of the principles of the FOI Act is that the identity of the person requesting information should not be taken into account. (If that is the case, what is the chance of people obtaining any information if they ask for it using a pseudonym? Whoever heard of public authorities applying common sense?)

* It is interesting to note that it is not the purpose of the UK (or Scottish) FoI legislation to disclose the identity of a person who requests information from a public body - the legislation was in fact intended to be "purpose-blind".

* In guidance issued by the Scottish Information Commissioner, he initially stated that he would accept as valid requests for information from anonymous parties as long as a valid email address was provided. He later backtracked on this position and stated that an email address was not sufficient - a postal address was required.

* Contrary to the Scottish position, the ICO guidance now says that emails are acceptable as an "address for correspondence" without having to include a postal address. This would suggest that the ICO's position is much more generous than that of their Scottish counterparts - and that the ICO is taking a much more liberal stance in its interpretation of the legislation, to the benefit of the general public: the ICO's position reflects the everyday use of modern technology and should make it easier for the public to request information. The Scottish position just puts barriers in their way.

* If information is information that should be disclosed to the public, why should it matter who requests it?

Have your say - add a comment below (you can even use a pseudonym if you like).

'Mickey Mouse' FOI bids refused (BBC News, 13 January 2009)

ICO clamps down on pseudonymous information requests - Mickey Mouse rules (The Register, 14 January 2009)

ICO Guidance (Information Commissioner's website - pdf)