Welcome to ‘Club Vexatious’, Independent! And, guess what? It seems the government has misused the Freedom of Information Act in your case.
The request for Home Secretary Theresa May’s work browsing history (omitting security matters), is not – on the face of it – vexatious. The reason given for claiming it was is the burden on the public authority, but there are very specific conditions attached to that.
According to the Information Commissioner’s guidance, a request creating “unreasonable burden” is defined as one in which “the effort required to meet [it] will be so grossly oppressive in terms of the strain on time and resources, that the authority cannot reasonably be expected to comply, no matter how legitimate the subject matter or valid the intentions of the requester.”
Obviously this cannot apply to the simple act of copying and pasting an Internet ‘history’ list and cutting out the security stuff.
The guidance adds that “Section 14(1) is concerned with the nature of the request rather than the consequences of releasing the requested information. If an authority is concerned about any possible prejudice which might arise from disclosure, then it will need to consider whether any of the exemptions listed in Part II of the Act apply.”
So concerns about “what might be revealed” are utterly irrelevant.
If the Independent hasn’t already made a request for reconsideration, then the newspaper’s editorial team need to get onto that straight away. Afterwards, if the response is the same (and it probably will be, then it’s an appeal to the Information Commissioner.
This Writer can almost guarantee that the Independent will win and the government will lose. Considering the context – the fact that Theresa May wants access to all of our Internet histories, the effect should hugely undermine the Conservative Party’s credibility.
The Home Office has refused to make Theresa May’s internet browsing history public under freedom of information rules, arguing that a request to do so is “vexatious”.
The Independent requested the Home Secretary’s work browsing history for the last week of October under the Freedom of Information Act.
Under the new Investigatory Powers Bill announced by Ms May the internet browsing history of everyone in the UK will have to be stored for a year and police and security services will be able to access the list of visited websites without any warrant.
The Home Secretary described such information, which her department refused to release in relation to her, as “the modern equivalent of an itemised phone bill”. Itemised phone bills have previously been released under the Freedom of Information Act.
The Freedom of Information Act is in theory supposed to allow for information held by government bodies to be disclosed, subject to certain conditions.
On 4 November the Independent invoked the Act to ask the Home Office to disclose “‘the web browser history of all web browsers on the Home Secretary Theresa May’s GSI network account for the week beginning Monday 26 October”.
The only reason given by officials against disclosure of Ms May’s browsing history was that the request for transparency was a “scattergun” approach conducted “without any idea of what might be revealed”.
If the Department had agreed to the request, it would have shown a list of websites visited on the Home Secretary’s computer account for a week.
“We have considered your request and we believe it to be vexatious. Section 14(1) of the Act provides that the Home Office is not obliged to comply with a request for information of this nature,” officials said in a response.
“We have decided that your request is vexatious because it places an unreasonable burden on the department, because it has adopted a scattergun approach and seems solely designed for the purpose of ‘fishing’ for information without any idea of what might be revealed.”
Officials were told in the request that they could exclude any information related to security matters – so that this could not be used as an excuse to deny disclosure.
The Home Office did not reply to the request within the legal deadline, but eventually provided a response refusing to release the information.
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