This story originally appeared at The Christian Science MonitorWhen people think of Twitter, they usually think of clipped comments about pop culture or the minutia of daily life, not formal legal documents and procedures. But that may be about to change in the United Kingdom, where the highest court in the country announced on Monday that it would begin accepting freedom of information (FOI) requests through Twitter.
Used by the public and media to request access to government documents, FOI requests aren’t known for being succinct. Consider that Britain’s Supreme Court directs those making FOI requests to use Form 2, a nine-page document. But it makes sense given the purpose of the request: to sufficiently describe the information that the requester is seeking that the court can find it in a timely manner. As a result, 140 characters usually isn’t enough to include all the detail needed in a FOI request.
So why did the Supreme Court decide to accept tweeted requests? Actually, it looks like it didn’t; rather, it appears to have backed into the policy inadvertently, when it launched its new Twitter account, @UKSupremeCourt, on Sunday.
The court intended to use the account to publicize information about its work and legal decisions – a novel effort, as few courts around the world have embraced social media. But in a policy document on its website, the court said that tweets to the account would “not be considered as contacting the Supreme Court for any official purpose,” including FOI requests.
Not so fast, said the Information Commissioner’s Office, Britain’s public authority on and enforcer of freedom of information. Publicservice.co.uk, a public service news website, reports that the ICO’s spokesman said that such a policy would “certainly be grounds for complaining to us.“
“Public authorities that use Twitter and other social networking sites must recognise that, like any other communication channel, they can be used to submit freedom of information requests provided the requester includes their real name, an address for correspondence and a description of the information requested,” the ICO spokesman said.
To its credit, the court was quick to change the policy. Only six hours after its account went live, the court tweeted that “We’ll accept FOIs via Twitter and will amend our policy accordingly.” A court spokesman confirmed the policy shift to publicservice.co.uk, saying “Clearly we can’t respond comprehensively to Freedom of Information requests via Twitter, but we will take appropriate steps to publish a response as required.”
It sounds like that will satisfy the ICO, as it also recognises the problem of fitting a sufficient request within 140 characters. A spokesman said they would “encourage requesters to use [the tweet policy] responsibly and consider alternative ways of submitting their request where appropriate.”
And just in case you were thinking of inundating the British Supreme Court with FOI requests over Twitter, be warned that FOI requests aren’t free. Someone still has to find the documents and send them along to the requester, for which the court charges £25 (about $40) per man-hour of work and £5 per electronic copy.
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