Thursday, December 15, 2011

Guidance on private email accounts welcomed

The Campaign for Freedom of Information welcomed today’s guidance from the Information Commissioner confirming that emails dealing with public authority business sent using officials’ private email accounts are subject to the Freedom of Information Act. The guidance points out that the same is true regardless of where information dealing with official business is held. This is because the Act applies not only to information held by a public authority but also to information held by “another person on behalf of the authority”.

The Campaign’s director Maurice Frankel said: “It's been well understood since the Act came into force that officials couldn’t avoid FOI simply by doing their work on their home computers, using private email accounts or keeping official files under their beds. If it was that easy to avoid FOI, Whitehall would have closed down and government business would be carried out from people’s homes. If people have been deliberately using such techniques to claim that no official records exist, they may have been committing an offence under the Act.”

The Information Commissioner’s new guidance says that where private account emails are used for official business because no official channel was available at the time it should be copied to the authority’s email system. It confirms that on occasions officials may be asked to search their private email accounts for messages dealing with official business, if these are needed to answer an FOI request. It also warns that anyone concealing or deleting requested information in order to prevent its disclosure under the Act may be committing an offence.

See also:
Disclosure rule for private emails set to shake Whitehall - FT 15 Dec 2011 (registration required)
Private email accounts are covered by information law - Martin Rosenbaum's blog post
FOI Man's blog post Privacy, email and clean pants

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