Saturday, February 20, 2010

ICO Vs. UEA In FOI Flap Over CRU Emails!!! Is The Biter Bit?

One of the more unfortunate aspects of the whole Climategate pseudo-scandal is the way the U.K.'s Information Commissioner’s Office, which is tasked with enforcing the Data Protection and Freedom of Information Acts, responded to the leak of CRU documents. Specifically: without consulting with the University of East Anglia (UEA), they issued a "statement" --based on reading stolen emails on the internet, and of which the official force remains obscure--claiming that the UEA had, with regards to a FOI request submitted by one David Holland, acted improperly:

The emails which are now public reveal that Mr Holland's requests under the Freedom of Information Act were not dealt with as they should have been under the legislation. Section 77 of the Freedom of Information Act makes it an offence for public authorities to act so as to prevent intentionally the disclosure of requested information. Mr Holland's FOI requests were submitted in 2007/8, but it has only recently come to light that they were not dealt with in accordance with the Act.

The problem with this statement is that, according to UEA, the response to Mr. Holland's request, and to the other requests generated by Stephen McIntyre's efforts at Climate Audit, was infused with advice given to the UEA by officers within the ICO. For example, UEA's response to the ICO statement says:

The ICO's opinion that we had breached the terms of Section 77 is a source of grave concern to the University as we would always seek to comply with the terms of the Act. During this case we have sought the advice of the ICO and responded fully to any requests for information.

...and Phil Jones notes in various emails that the ICO was involved in crafting the response to Holland's and the other frivolous FOI requests. Which raises the question: did the ICO advise UEA to engage in actions it now deems to be improper?

Over at the denialist website The Air Vent, some dude named Kondealer (who, if that is his real name, probably had a rough time in highschool) has been trying to get an answer from the ICO, and managed to elicit this rather impressive display of squirming. An excerpt:

I am responding to the enquiry that you made regarding what advice may have been provided by the ICO to the University of East Anglia in relation to its handling of requests for information related to its Climatic Research Unit. This has been looked into and I have outlined below the ICO’s view on this matter.

One of the emails exchanged between IPCC authors and related parties placed in the public domain contains the following sentence:

Keith and Tim are still getting Freedom Of Information (FOI) requests, as are the Meteorological Office Hadley Centre and the University of Reading. All our FOI officers have been in discussions and are now using the same exceptions not to respond-advice they got from the Information Commissioner.

Viewed in isolation, this sentence may have created the false impression that the ICO provided advice to the University of East Anglia encouraging it to withhold information.

The Commissioner does not accept this view and wants to stress that such action would be in direct conflict with the vision, aims, and values of the ICO and would undermine his role as statutory regulator. The ICO would not, in any circumstances, encourage an authority to avoid compliance with the law. To do so would undermine the Commissioner’s role as an impartial regulator and compromise his duty to support the presumption of disclosure implicit within Freedom of Information (FOI) Act and Environmental Information Regulations (EIR).


The written queries are recorded on the ICO’s electronic case management system. Telephone enquiries are more numerous, with over 2,000 per week, and given their volume it is not practical to record the content of each (assuming that the caller consented to identify themselves, which they are under no obligation to do). The ICO has checked its records and can trace two examples of written advice provided to UEA which predate the email in question, but these were on unrelated topics with no bearing on the climate-data issue. If the University had sought verbal advice before then, the ICO would only have provided general advice, and certainly would not have explicitly supported or endorsed the use of a particular exemption or exception.

Discounting the notion that UEA did not contact the ICO at all, I suppose it will be up the Muir Russell inquiry to determine how deeply complicit the ICO was in the behavior it now finds so disturbing.

Oh, and, irony of Ironies, Kondealer, involved as he is with the gang of bloggers that first flooded CRU with vexatious FOI requests, will now begin bombarding the ICO with...wait for it!...a vexatious FOI request:

I have now decided what I will do next.

1) I will make an F.O.I request to the ICO for all materials pertaining to contacts that the ICO had between CRU regarding what advice may have been provided by the ICO to the University of East Anglia in relation to its handling of requests for information related to its Climatic Research Unit.This will include transcripts of telephone conversations, because I believe that they are recorded for “security and training purposes”

He's also going to

...send the ICO’s letter to the “Independent” CRU Inquiry under Sir Muir-Russell pointing out that CRU can no longer prove they had advice from the ICO approving their actions. Which IMHO refutes what CRU are saying on their website.

(which is what I quoted above)

...although I Imagine the UEA will be making hay of the fact that, from their perspective, they are being criticized by the ICO for following that agency's guidance.


bi -- International Journal of Inactivism said...

What a glorious mess.

Anyway, are there any inactivist blogs other than the Air Vent that are blogging on this FOI confusion? Thus far, tAV seems to be the odd man out when it comes to SwiftHack-related discussions.

bigcitylib said...

Lucia has some stuff in the comments to Bostock Story.

Anonymous said...

Quite right, 'BCL', can't have ignorant little 'oiks' asking for information just because they pay for both it and the high-minded people who produce it. For God's sake you'll be asking for a Freedom of Information Act next and then ... oh dear ...

David Duff

bi -- International Journal of Inactivism said...

What's your point, Duff? That the ICO contradicted themselves, therefore the ICO's finding is obviously right?