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Mickey Mouse wants to know

Martin Rosenbaum | 11:49 UK time, Friday, 17 October 2008

Many public authorities have accepted that they should answer freedom of information requests which appear to come from cartoon characters with email addresses. MickeyMouse.jpg

However the need for this may soon be clarified. I understand that the Information Commissioner Richard Thomas is currently considering a number of complaints which turn on the issue of whether an obviously pseudonymous FOI request should be answered, and may issue his decisions shortly.

Right now there's an interesting if possibly pointless dispute on whatdotheyknow between someone calling himself or herself 'Colwyn Resident' and a public authority entitled the Public Services Ombudsman for Wales.

The Ombudsman's office won't answer a freedom of information request from 'Colwyn resident' on the basis that they suspect this is not the applicant's real name.

The FOI Act does lay down that a request must state 'the name of the applicant', so the Ombudsman's stance may be legally correct, although whether it's a good use of time and effort is of course another question entirely. They would certainly have to answer a request that came from a more plausible pseudonym, or from one of those services which make FOI requests for you 'without your fingerprint being evident'.

Whatever the law strictly says, the current guidance from the Information Commissioner Richard Thomas is discouraging to authorities who won't reply to Mickey Mouse.

It says: 'A better starting point is the assumption built into the FOIA that public authorities must generally ignore the identity and circumstances of the requester ... This approach recognises that although requesters cannot gain any advantage by using a pseudonym, they may have reasons for not wishing to draw attention to themselves by using the names under which they are normally known.'

The Scottish Information Commissioner Kevin Dunion, however, is less sympathetic to anonymous requesters. His advice states: 'You must give your real name ... The Commissioner will not be able to carry out an investigation if he finds out that you have used a false name.'

In another issue which relates to the anonymity of requesters, I also understand that Richard Thomas has been considering whether to change his practice of issuing decision notices which do not identify the complainant publicly and instead adopt the SIC's approach of naming complainants unless they have requested anonymity.

So we may soon have decision notices referring to the case of, say, 'Colwyn Resident' vs the Public Services Ombudsman for Wales, or perhaps Donald Duck vs the Cabinet Office. But if you're tempted to impersonate a leading animated personality, always remember this: Imitating Mickey Mouse can be dangerous.


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