Facing justice: judgment against Facebook in privacy/data protection case

February 25th, 2015 by Anya Proops

The extent to which privacy and data protection rights can effectively resonate within the online environment is an acutely important issue for all information law practitioners. Moreover, it is an issue which seems to be gaining ever increasing traction in the litigation context, as is illustrated not least by the following developments.

  • As most readers of this blog will know, last year the CJEU sent shock waves through the information law community when it held, in Google Spain, that EU data protection legislation operated so as to enable the so-called ‘right to be forgotten’ to be asserted against Google. (That principle is due to receive further consideration from our domestic courts in the forthcoming case of Max Mosley v Google – see Robin’s post on the Mosley case here).
  • Then we had the judgment of the High Court in Vidal-Hall v Google, where the court concluded, in the face of a jurisdictional defence mounted by Google, that claims brought against Google concerning its tracking of the internet browsing habits of users could properly proceed. (An appeal against the High Court’s judgment in that case is due to be heard by the Court of Appeal on 2nd or 3rd March – the ICO is intervening in support of the claimants’ case).
  • Now the High Court in Northern Ireland has given judgment in an important case involving a compensation claim made against Facebook: CG v Facebook & Anor [2015] NIQB 11.

Key aspects of the CG judgment are as follows:

  • The claim was brought by a convicted paedophile in respect of a series of postings placed on Facebook by third parties, one of whom had been named as second defendant to the claims. The postings not only included data amounting to vituperative name-calling but also repeated incitements to violence in respect of the claimant.
  • The High Court held that Facebook was liable in respect of the postings, particularly on the basis that it had misused the claimant’s private information by failing to delete the postings after Facebook’s attention had been drawn to their existence.
  • The High Court rejected Facebook’s assertion that its liability in respect of the postings was excluded on an application of the Electronic Commerce (EC Directive) Regulations 2002. On this issue, the court held that: (a) the Regulations only immunise the relevant information society service (ISS) against liability if the ISS has no actual or constructive knowledge of the unlawful activity on its site or, if it has acquired that knowledge, it acts expeditiously to remove or disable access to the relevant information and (b) Facebook could not rely on the Regulations in the present case because, after being notified of the relevant postings, Facebook had failed to remove or disable access to them.
  • The second defendant, an individual who was responsible for one of the disputed postings, was liable for misuse of the claimant’s private information in his capacity as primary publisher. He was also liable for harassment under the Protection from Harassment Act.
  • As for the claim under the DPA 1998, which was brought only against Facebook and not against the second defendant, that claim could not proceed because, on an application of s. 5 DPA 1998, the claim fell outside of the territorial ambit of the legislation. (Notably no reference was made in this context to the CJEU’s approach to territorial ambit under the data protection Directive in the Google Spain case).
  • Whilst no DPA claim was pleaded against the second defendant, the court made the following points about the application of the journalistic exemption contained in s. 32 DPA:
    • The court noted that the Claimant had conceded that the second defendant’s activities in posting material on Facebook might about to ‘journalism’.
    • However, the court went on to conclude there was no scope for the second defendant to rely on the journalistic exemption contained in s. 32 DPA 1998. This was particularly because the second defendant could not have had any ‘reasonable’ belief that his publications were in the public interest for the purposes of s. 32(1)(b).
  •  The claimant was awarded £20,000 in compensation in respect of his claim for misuse of private information.

What is interesting and important about the CG judgment is that it reinforces the point that organisations which operate merely so as to facilitate online freedom of expression can no longer safely assume that they are always operating in the stratosphere, far above the mire of the privacy litigation battlefield. Instead, they must appreciate that those rights are sufficiently flexible and powerful that they can potentially draw such organisations firmly into the fray.

Anya Proops

PECR Thresholds a Substantially Distressing Nuisance of the Past

February 25th, 2015 by Christopher Knight

The Department for Culture Media and Sport has today announced that it is to amend the Privacy and Electronic Communications Regulations 2003 so as to remove the requirement that unlawful nuisance calls and texts are a source of “substantial damage or substantial distress”; that being the test which must be met in order for the Information Commissioner to impose a monetary penalty notice (“MPN”): section 55A(1) of the Data Protection Act 1998.

The plan, which was the subject of consultation (see my post here), is apparently to drop the substantial damage/distress limb altogether. Draft legislation has not yet been published, so we can’t comment on the precise way this is going to be done, or whether there are any other ramifications. But such legislation will have to come soon, because the plan is to implement the change from 6 April 2015. The change will radically increase the ability of the ICO to issue MPNs to the companies which routinely flout the provisions of PECR, but which cause limited distress.

DCMS has also trailed the, as yet unexplained, idea that “We’re also going to look at whether the powers the ICO have to hold to account board level executives for such behaviour are sufficient or we need to do more.” Not clear at the moment what is meant by ‘looking at’, and it may be that another consultation is on the way.

The Government’s announcement can be read here.

Update: The Privacy and Electronic Communications (EC Directive) (Amendment) Regulations 2015 have now been published and do simply remove the damage/distress limb of the section 55A test when it applies under PECR. It also adds provisions permitting emergency alerts to be sent, placing a limit on the length of time that providers may retain the traffic and location data they process, unless the data is modified in such a way that the data cannot identify an individual or corporate body.

 

Christopher Knight

Down the Rabbit Hole – Late Reliance under FOIA

February 15th, 2015 by Christopher Knight

Says the White Rabbit in Alice in Wonderland, “Oh my furry whiskers, I’m late, I’m late, I’m late!” Although the application of FOIA may sometimes feel like Wonderland, the feeling it induces is normally more akin to turning up unexpectedly at the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party (although attributing FTT judicial figures to the characters of the Mad Hatter and the Dormouse is beyond me). But one thing that has, since Birkett v DEFRA [2011] EWCA Civ 1606, not generally proved very controversial is the question of late reliance on exemptions; the White Rabbit need have little fear. Birkett made clear that late (usually after the DN and in the course of litigation before the FTT) reliance on substantive exemptions is permissible, subject to case management powers, under the EIR. The unappealed equivalent decision under FOIA, Information Commissioner v Home Office [2011] UKUT 17 (AAC), has generally been assumed to be correct.

However, there is a generous ‘but’ involved, about which lawyers are second only to Sir Mixlot in their appreciation. Can one rely late upon an exemption in Part I of FOIA? There has been a conflict of FTT and Upper Tribunal authority on the point. Independent Police Complaints Commission v Information Commissioner [2012] 1 Info LR 427 had held that there could be late reliance on section 12. The Upper Tribunal in All Party Parliamentary Group on Extraordinary Rendition v Information Commissioner & Ministry of Defence [2011] UKUT 153 (AAC); [2011] 2 Info LR 75 expressed the clear, if obiter, view that section 12 was not in the same position as substantive FOIA Part II exemptions because it had a different purpose; section 12 is not about the nature of the information but the effect on the public authority of having to deal with the request. The scheme of FOIA was likely to be distorted, the Upper Tribunal held, if the authority could suddenly rely on section 12 after already having carried out the search and engaged with the requestor: at [45]-[47]. The APPGER approach was accepted by the FTT in Sittampalam v Information Commissioner & BBC [2011] 2 Info LR 195. There was at least a school of thought that the APPGER logic ought also to apply to section 14 (which, as was explained in Dransfield, is not properly an exemption at all: at [10]-[11]). Then, in Department for Education v Information Commissioner & McInerney (EA/2013/0270), Judge Warren firmly concluded that section 14 (and by implication section 12) could be relied upon late. I suggested at the time that the conflict of authority on the point might require appellate resolution, and Ms McInerney appealed on that basis (in partial reliance, it appears, on my blogpost: see at [22] of the UT judgment).

 The appeal in McInerney v Information Commissioner and the Department for Education [2015] UKUT 0047 (AAC) has now been determined by Judge Jacobs (who heard the Birkett and Home Office cases). It has definitively resolved that a public authority may rely on sections 12 or 14 for the first time before the FTT, subject to the case management powers of the FTT. Although the judgment of the Upper Tribunal is fairly lengthy, the key part of the analysis is fairly brief. Judge Jacobs considered the principles derived from Birkett overtook the reasoning in APPGER, that the discussion of principle in his Home Office decision applied equally to the Part I exemptions, that section 17(1) did not prevent late reliance, that there was nothing in section 12 to require a different answer, and that late reliance may be forced on a public authority for good reasons (such as the instant appeal): at [33]-[41]. The Upper Tribunal did not consider it necessary to review the various FTT decisions. If section 12 is relied upon before the FTT for the first time, it will be the FTT which has to review the reasonableness of the estimate: at [40]. The Upper Tribunal considered that the answer on section 14 followed naturally from the answer on section 12.

 The position now at least has the benefit of consistency. Requestors will doubtless continue to be extremely frustrated by public authorities who appear to change their position at the last moment (usually when lawyers have become involved), and the FTT does not appear to have been often exercising its powers to restrict late reliance, or to punish incorrect late reliance in costs. However, if an exemption is relied upon correctly, reaching the correct answer is important. Whiskers may soothed, pocket watches stowed away, and lateness need rarely be an issue.

 Also of some practical interest will be the discussion of Judge Jacobs on the interaction of sections 14 and 16. It might be thought difficult to see how the section 16 duty could really apply to a vexatious request (“we advise you to submit a request which is not vexatious” perhaps?). Judge Jacobs accepted at [55] that a request should not have to be dissected to see if it can be severed, because that would undermine the purpose of section 14, but that section 16 cannot be ignored. The circumstances might allow a public authority to extract one part to create a non-vexatious request: at [56]. This is a little hard to understand; it might be thought the better analysis would be that properly construed, that one part was not a vexatious request, and it is not clear whether section 16 adds much. He added that it is not for the FTT to apply section 16 to assist a requestor – only the public authority is obliged to do so: at [57]-[58].

 Andrew Sharland appeared for the DfE and Robin Hopkins appeared for the ICO.

 Christopher Knight

 

The Algebra of FOIA

February 6th, 2015 by Christopher Knight

It is no matter of Euclidian geometry to say that where x + y = z, and z = 13, being told what y equals one need not be Pythagoras to establish the value of x. But what happens when z is in the public domain, x is absolutely exempt information under FOIA (because it is caught by section 23(1)) and the public interest otherwise favours the disclosure of y, which is not the subject of an exemption? Inevitably, the effect of disclosure is that the absolutely exempt information is also revealed. The Interim Decision of the Upper Tribunal in Home Office v ICO & Cobain [2014] UKUT 306 (AAC) was that the Tribunal had to consider whether it was appropriate to utilise the section 50(4) FOIA power so as not to direct disclosure. The issue may be formulaic, but the answer is not.

The application of section 50(4) has only previously received analysis in ICO v HMRC & Gaskell [2011] UKUT 296 (AAC), in which Judge Wikeley held (at [24]) that section 50(4) could be used so as not to require disclosure of information where it would be “unlawful, impossible or wholly impractical”. On the facts of Gaskell, section 50(4) was appropriate because since the request had been made the law had made disclosure of the information unlawful.

The Upper Tribunal has now exercised that decision itself in Home Office v ICO & Cobain [2015] UKUT 27 (AAC), in which Judge Wikeley held that the appropriate exercise of the section 50(4) discretion requires no steps to be taken (i.e. y need not be disclosed, even though section 1 FOIA entitles Mr Cobain to see it). The Upper Tribunal stressed that the application of section 50(4) should be rare, given the need to construe FOIA liberally, and use of it must be lawful in a public law sense. Judge Wikeley broadly endorsed the ICO’s ten listed factors as of potential relevance (although they will vary on the facts of each case): at [18]. He saw it as particularly important that the absolute exemption which would be undermined in this case was section 23(1), expressly drawn widely by Parliament and by contrast to section 24. Indeed, he accepted that section 23 “affords the widest protection”: at [29]. Judge Wikeley also considered the degree of public interest in the information, which he considered not to be especially high given the existing material in the public domain. He therefore agreed that section 50(4) should be applied so as not to require the Home Office to take steps to disclose the information.

It remains to be seen how often there really will be such issues in practice. The Cobain case appears to be the first of its type, although the Upper Tribunal recognised that it might occur under other class-based exemptions, such as sections 30, 35, 41 and 42. What may be more interesting is where different exemptions apply to x and y, one of which is absolutely exempt and one of which is subject to a qualified exemption. Is the algebraic problem a matter for the public interest balance in relation to y, or should it only be resolved at section 50(4)? Strictly speaking, one can see the analytical purity of considering the interest only in relation the specific information covered by y, but it is hard to imagine that the impact of disclosure in relation to x will not bleed across into the weighing. And if there has already been a public interest exercise, what room will there remain for it to be taken into account under section 50(4) – in such cases it would look a lot like double-counting. Perhaps we shall never know, and this may be what happens when the maths fox runs loose in the FOIA henhouse.

One brief procedural addition. The Upper Tribunal had, in ICO v Bell [2014] UKUT 106 (AAC), held that the Tribunal should usually explain that a Decision Notice was wrong in law and why, rather than substituting a new Decision Notice. Judge Wikeley was rather less convinced at the appropriateness or necessity of that conclusion (see at [40]-[42], and in particular the amusing and obvious implicit support given to the Tribunal’s castigation of Bell in Clucas v ICO (EA/2014/0006)) and happily availed himself of the crack left open by Judge Jacobs in Bell to substitute a new Decision Notice in this case. Given that it was a case using section 50(4), that seems a particularly sensible step. Doubtless a case will arise in which Bell can be reconsidered, and God bless all those who have to sail in her.

In the meantime, it is time for FOIA lawyers to get back to the calculators.

Christopher Knight

Googling Orgies – Thrashing out the Liability of Search Engines

January 30th, 2015 by Christopher Knight

Back in 2008, the late lamented News of the World published an article under the headline “F1 boss has sick Nazi orgy with 5 hookers”. It had obtained footage of an orgy involving Max Mosley and five ladies of dubious virtue, all of whom were undoubtedly (despite the News of the World having blocked out their faces) not Mrs Mosley. The breach of privacy proceedings before Eady J (Mosley v News Group Newspapers Ltd [2008] EWHC 687 (QB)) established that the ‘Nazi’ allegation was unfounded and unfair, that the footage was filmed by a camera secreted in “such clothing as [one of the prostitutes] was wearing” (at [5]), and also the more genteel fact that even S&M ‘prison-themed’ orgies stop for a tea break (at [4]), rather like a pleasant afternoon’s cricket, but with a rather different thwack of willow on leather.

Since that time, Mr Mosley’s desire to protect his privacy and allow the public to forget his penchant for themed tea breaks has led him to bring or fund ever more litigation, whilst simultaneously managing to remind as many people as possible of the original incident. His latest trip to the High Court concerns the inevitable fact of the internet age that the photographs and footage obtained and published by the News of the World remain readily available for those in possession of a keyboard and a strong enough constitution. They may not be on a scale of popularity as last year’s iCloud hacks, but they can be found.

Alighting upon the ruling of the CJEU in Google Spain that a search engine is a data controller for the purposes of the Data Protection Directive (95/46/EC) (on which see the analysis here), Mr Mosley claimed that Google was obliged, under section 10 of the Data Protection Act 1998, to prevent processing of his personal data where he served a notice requesting it to do so, in particular by not blocking access to the images and footage which constitute his personal data. He also alleged misuse of private information. Google denied both claims and sought to strike them out. The misuse of private information claim being (or soon to be) withdrawn, Mitting J declined to strike out the DPA claim: Mosley v Google Inc [2015] EWHC 59 (QB). He has, however, stayed the claim for damages under section 13 pending the Court of Appeal’s decision in Vidal-Hall v Google (on which see the analysis here).

Google ran a cunning defence to what, post-Google Spain, might be said to be a strong claim on the part of a data subject. It relied on Directive 2000/31/EC, the E-Commerce Directive. Article 13 protects internet service providers from liability for the cached storage of information, providing they do not modify the information. Mitting J was content to find that by storing the images as thumbnails, Google was not thereby modifying the information in any relevant sense: at [41]. Article 15 of the E-Commerce Directive also prohibits the imposition of a general obligation on internet service providers to monitor the information they transmit or store.

The problem for Mitting J was how to resolve the interaction between the E-Commerce Directive and the Data Protection Directive; the latter of which gives a data subject rights which apparently extend to cached information held by internet service providers which the former of which apparently absolves them of legal responsibility for. It was pointed out that recital (14) and article 1.5(b) of the E-Commerce Directive appeared to make that instrument subject to the Data Protection Directive. It was also noted that Google’s argument did not sit very comfortably with the judgment (or at least the effect of the judgment) of the CJEU in Google Spain.

Mitting J indicated that there were only two possible answers: either the Data Protection Directive formed a comprehensive code, or the two must be read in harmony and given full effect to: at [45]. His “provisional preference is for the second one”: at [46]. Unfortunately, the judgment does not then go on to consider why that is so, or more importantly, how both Directives can be read in harmony and given full effect to. Of course, on a strike out application provisional views are inevitable, but it leaves rather a lot of legal work for the trial judge, and one might think that it would be difficult to resolve the interaction without a reference to the CJEU. What, for example, is the point of absolving Google of liability for cached information if that does not apply to any personal data claims, which will be a good way of re-framing libel/privacy claims to get around Article 13?

The Court also doubted that Google’s technology really meant that it would have to engage in active monitoring, contrary to Article 15, because they may be able to do so without “disproportionate effort or expense”: at [54]. That too was something for the trial judge to consider.

So, while the judgment of Mitting J is an interesting interlude in the ongoing Mosley litigation saga, the final word certainly awaits a full trial (and/or any appeal by Google), and possibly a reference. All the judgment decides is that Mr Mosley’s claim is not so hopeless it should not go to trial. Headlines reading ‘Google Takes a Beating (with a break for tea)’ would be premature. But the indications given by Mitting J are not favourable to Google, and it may well be that the footage of Mr Mosley will not be long for the internet.

Christopher Knight

New President of the GRC

December 4th, 2014 by Christopher Knight

The Ministry of Justice has today announced the new President of the General Regulatory Chamber to be Judge Peter Lane. He will take up his post on 15 December, replacing Judge Nicholas Warren, who is retiring.

As President of the GRC, Judge Lane will doubtless hear a fair share of Information Rights appeals – as his predecessor did – and will have some familiarity with the regime from his time in the last four years or so sitting in the Upper Tribunal.

Panopticon wishes Judge Lane all the best in his new role (in which guise many Panopticonners will doubtless see more of him), and Judge Warren all the best in his retirement.

Christopher Knight

Kennedy goes to Strasbourg (maybe)

November 18th, 2014 by Anya Proops

Hot of the press – Readers of this blog will be aware of the wonderful saga involving Mr Kennedy and his tireless quest to gain access to information held by the Charity Commission. I have been told today that, having lost his appeal before the Supreme Court (see the relevant Panopticon post here), Mr Kennedy is now seeking to bring the case before the European Court of Human Rights. An application has been lodged and Mr Kennedy is now awaiting a decision on admissibility. All of which means that we may yet see the Strasbourg Court having its say on the vexed question of whether s. 32 FOIA, as currently framed, is compatible with the Art 10 right to receive information. For further updates, watch this space.

Anya Proops

Good Things Come to Those Who (Have Inherent) Weight

October 29th, 2014 by Christopher Knight

Philosophically, everything must have an inherent weight. Otherwise it would have no weight at all. But FOIA is not concerned with philosophy; it is much more concerned with who is in charge of the sheep dip, and indeed the levels of public funding for the sheep being dipped. (No points for spotting that reference, Bruce.) As a result, there are often debates in the FOIA case law about whether a particular qualified exemption contains an inherent weight, i.e. is the fact that the exemption is engaged at all sufficient to place some weight in the public interest balance against disclosure? The answer varies according to the particular exemption.

In Cabinet Office v Information Commissioner [2014] UKUT 461 (AAC), the Cabinet Office appealed against a decision of the FTT that the number of times the Reducing Regulation Committee has met should be disclosed. This apparently supremely uninteresting piece of information was withheld in reliance on section 35(1)(b) FOIA, which provides a qualified exemption for information relating to Ministerial communications. The Cabinet Office argued that the FTT had erred in not ascribing an inherent weight to section 35(1)(b), and also that it had misunderstood aspects of the evidence on prejudice presented to it.

The appeal in fact succeeded on the second ground, because Judge Turnbull took the view that the FTT had misunderstood an aspect of the evidence being given to it  – even though it had got it right in other places – and was not sufficiently sure that that would make no difference, so that the case was remitted. That aspect is very fact-specific and unlikely to be of much wider interest, except possibly to avid watchers of the Reducing Regulation Committee.

The Cabinet Office did not succeed on its first ground. Under the existing state of the jurisprudence, section 35(1)(c) (advice of Law Officers) has some inherent weight (HM Treasury v Information Commissioner [2009] EWHC 1811; [2010] QB 563) but that section 35(1)(a) (formulation of Government policy) does not (OGC v Information Commissioner [2008] EWHC 774 (Admin)). Section 42 (legal professional privilege) also has some inherent weight: DBERR v O’Brien [2009] EWHC 164 (QB). Judge Turnbull concluded at [47]-[70] that there was no inherent weight in the section 35(1)(b) exemption. He reasoned that there were a variety of policy justifications underpinning the various limbs of section 35, and they did not all overlap. The fact that the information has merely to “relate to” Ministerial communications means that the exemption could be engaged without bringing into play to any significant extent any of the public policy considerations underlying the exemption. It was not obvious how the information in issue would undermine the convention of collective Cabinet responsibility, or have an effect of the future behaviour of Ministers. The section 35(1)(c) exemption was narrower in that it was more likely that the information would engage the central policy justification for the exemption, but that where it did not there may be situations where even the exemption in s.35(1)(c) can be engaged without any necessary assumption of some inherent weight (see at [61]). Section 42 was different because it did not include the words “relate to” and any disclosure would undermine the single policy justification of protecting privileged access to legal advice.

Judge Turnbull’s analysis at [67] was to set out a test which is more nuanced and contextual than simply an assertion of inherent weight:

I think that some confusion and apparent contradiction has been introduced into the case law by formulating the question as being whether the exemption in a particular subsection of section 35(1) carries inherent weight. In my judgment it is preferable (i) to consider to what extent the public interest factors potentially underlying the relevant exemption are in play in the particular case and then (ii) to consider what weight attaches to those factors, on the particular facts.”

As a result, the FTT had not erred in law. (In fact, the Cabinet Office had not made the argument before the FTT that there should be an inherent weight in section 35(1)(b). That was evidently the correct position to have taken.) It is difficult to argue with the reasoning of Judge Turnbull, and the judgment is a helpful clarification of the law under sections 35(1)(a) and (b), although it perhaps makes the situation slightly less clear in relation to (c), given the reinterpretation of HM Treasury to allow for less/no inherent weight in more tangential cases. The only surprise is that Lord Steyn’s much cited adage from R (Daly) v Secretary of State for the Home Department [2001] 2 AC 532 at [28] that “in the law, context is everything” did not get another outing.

Robin Hopkins appeared for the ICO.

Christopher Knight

The Government wants to get your PECR up

October 26th, 2014 by Christopher Knight

You – yes, you! – are entitled to FREE compensation! Our records – what records? Magic records! – show that you were missold PPI and can now claim thousands of pounds!

If you haven’t ever had a text message or a phone call along these lines, then you are either managing to live as a hermit or you are extraordinarily lucky. Most of us face spam texts and nuisance cold-calls as a daily fact of life. They are a regular source of irritation and annoyance. They are also blatantly illegal, particularly if you have signed up to the Telephone Preference Service. See: regs 22-23 of the Privacy and Electronic Communications Regulations 2003 (SI 2003/2426) (“PECR”), implemented under EU Directive 2002/21/EC.

Unfortunately, the nature of such communications means that it will not be very often that they are a source of “substantial damage or substantial distress”. Yet, that is the test which must be met in order for the Information Commisisoner to impose a monetary penalty notice (“MPN”): section 55A(1) of the Data Protection Act 1998 (implemented as the enforcement regime for PECR as well in a fit of slightly lazy ‘joined-up’ thinking).

As readers of this blog will know, the Upper Tribunal’s interpretation of the MPN regime as applied to PECR in Information Commissioner v Niebel [2014] UKUT 255 (AAC) has had the effect that it will be almost impossible for the ICO to establish substantial damage or distress in spam text message cases (see Anya Proops’ detailed comment here). It is certainly the case that the door remains more ajar in relation to nuisance calls – which by their nature are much more likely to cause genuine distress to some individuals – and the ICO is dealing with a couple of MPN appeals to establish how ajar, but Niebel casts a baleful shadow.

But, to the east, a new dawn may be rising. If the ICO’s war against the orc-like forces of spam is reminscient of the Battle of Helms Deep (and I think we can all agree that it is), then the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, Sajid Javid, is Gandalf, appearing with the remains of the Rohirrim on the morning of fifth day to turn the tide. For the DCMS has just launched a consultation exercise on amending PECR with a view to altering the test from “substantial damage or distress” to causing “annoyance, inconvenience or anxiety”. On its face, that change will be much more easily met and give PECR some teeth, as well as better implementing the Directive, which did not require anything so high as the section 55A test. The consultation paper can be found here, and the period for responding closes on December 7th. So once you have had fun allocating characters to the players in this area (Is Ed Vaizey Peregrine Took? Is Christopher Graham, the ICO, Aragorn? Is our own Robin Hopkins, counsel for Mr ‘Spamalot’ Niebel, Grima Wormtongue?), do respond to the consultation.

Update

Few areas of the law have such informed and coherent bloggers as information and data protection law, and not surprisingly, the PECR consultation has been grist to the commentariat mill. But at least one leading blogger, Jon Baines, has made the point that the Government’s (and the ICO’s) preferred option from the consultation is actually to remove the threshold entirely. He is right (and however formidable I may be – thanks Jon – I should have made that point). That is what the consultation paper says under option 3 (removing any harm threshold at all). Although it is also fair to say that it is slightly surprising that that is the preferred option, as the rest of the consultation paper appears to be drafted around the utility of adopting the “annoyance, inconvenience or anxiety” threshold. Not only is that what the Government says on the consultation page of its website, but paragraphs 16-20 of the paper (under the heading ‘The Proposal’) talk expressing in terms of the ‘annoyance’ threshold (and cross-refer to that being the test used by Ofcom). At paragraphs 44-45 of the paper the ICO appears to have provided evidence on the different actions it could have taken under an ‘annoyance’ test. Nowhere until the options are presented is it suggested that the talk of “lowering the threshold” might mean removing the threshold altogether. Which might just be an oversight. Or it might indicate that consulting on a preferred no harm option is one of those kite-flying efforts Sir Stephen Sedley warned of in the LRB. Either way, the reader is left less than clear as to what DCMS or the ICO really want.

(Apologies for the lack of LOTR references in this update. To make up for it, do enjoy this video of Ian McKellen explaining to schoolkids why they should revise for their exams. You’re welcome.)

Christopher Knight

Local Government Transparency Code – Updated

October 7th, 2014 by Christopher Knight

Back in May 2014 the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government issued the Local Government Transparency Code, and I briefly blogged about that here.

Now, an updated version of the Code dated October 2014 has been issued. Unaccountably, its publication appears to have been overshadowed by Kevin Pietersen’s autobiography, but it might perhaps be unfair to engage in a game of parallels, identifying for example who the “Big Cheese” would be at DCLG. The October 2014 Code is materially the same as its May predecessor (but fully replaces it) and it may assist if my earlier comments are set out again here (with amendments and updated cross-references).

The Code is issued in exercise of the Secretary of State’s powers under section 2 of the Local Government, Planning and Land Act 1980 to issue a Code of Recommended Practice as to the publication of information by local authorities about the discharge of their functions and other matters which he considers to be related.

The Code sets out in some detail in Part 2 the type of information held by local authorities which must be published (some of it annually). This is designed to replicate the requirements prescribed in the Local Government (Transparency) (Descriptions of Information) (England) Order 2014. Part 3 sets out the information which, in the view of the Secretary of State, ought to be published. A helpful Annex A provides the details in tabular form.

Paragraph 17 of the Code provides that: “Where information would otherwise fall within one of the exemptions from disclosure under the Freedom of Information Act 2000, the Environmental Information Regulations 2004, the Infrastructure for Spatial Information in the European Community Regulations 2009 or falls within Schedule 12A to the Local Government Act 1972 then it is in the discretion of the local authority whether or not to rely on that exemption or publish the data.” There is therefore no attempt to override the FOIA exemptions. But where a qualified exemption applies, the appearance of the requested information in one of the categories set out in the Code will have a role (possibly a significant role) in establishing the public interest in support of disclosure. Of course, where the Secretary of State as required – in Part 2 – information to be published, it should be published by the local authority. Any reliance on a qualified exemption will be doomed to fail. Information falling within the scope of Part 3 is also likely to face an uphill struggle to be withheld under FOIA/EIR, but it will be context dependent.

The main substantive difference between the May and October Codes is that the new one has added three datasets to the list of information which must be published: namely information about how the authority delivers waste services, use the parking revenue it collects and tackles fraud.

 

One development between May and October is that the DCLG have obviously been faced with a barrage of questions from concerned Councils. In an attempt to assist, DCLG has also published an accompanying FAQ Guide to the Code, which may help those attempting to practically apply the new Code with what the DCLG was trying to do in particular circumstances.

Christopher Knight