The Information Commissioner’s formal ruling that the Royal Household is not legally required to answer requests for environmental information has today been criticised by a number of freedom of information experts and activists after it was found to contain unattributed extracts from three Wikipedia articles.
Environmental information was requested from the Royal Household in March 2012. The Royal Household refused to answer the request on the basis that it was not a public authority despite receiving millions of pounds of public funding and being responsible for the upkeep of the state-owned Occupied Royal Palaces. The requester (@foimonkey on Twitter*) appealed this decision to the ICO in May 2012, who formally responded around nine months later.
Plagiarism from Wikipedia
The ICO’s formal Decision Letter contained unattributed extracts from three Wikipedia articles – the material from Wikipedia was not in quotes and was passed off as though it were the ICO’s original analysis of the legal and constitutional position of the Royal Household. This is particularly embarrassing for the ICO as the Decision Letter was signed off by the Deputy Information Commissioner with responsibility for FOI (Graham Smith) and given the nature of the ruling should have been looked at by the ICO’s high profile case unit.
The ICO may have broken copyright law by reproducing this material without attributing Wikipedia. Questions are now being asked about the use of unattributed sources in the ICO’s formal decisions.
Plagiarism from Royal Household website
The ICO’s Decision Letter also included a number of unattributed extracts from the Royal Household website again passed off as though it were the ICO’s own analysis. This demonstrates a lack of rigour by the ICO in reaching formal decisions and suggests that it taking statements made by the bodies it regulates at face value rather than acting as a robust and responsible regulator. The ICO’s conduct in this matter will be taken by many as a sign that it gives too much weight to the views of public bodies and is is too quick to dismiss the legitimate concerns of FOI requesters.
A number of other deficiencies in the ruling have been identified. One claim made by the ICO is particularly absurd and is likely to anger Monarchists and Republicans alike:
“the Commissioner is satisfied that the Sovereign does not exercise functions that are public in nature.”
(This despite the Queen’s role in the State Opening of Parliament, in awarding Peerages and honours and appointing ministers, as Head of the Armed Forces, I could go on…)
No mention of right to appeal
It has also been noted that the ICO has not notified the requester of their right to appeal the ruling – this failure is already the subject of a separate complaint to the ICO.
The Information Commissioner’s Office has a number of questions to answer about the quality of formal decisions and needs to take urgent action to regain the confidence of FOI requesters.
*well known to me and many who read my blog