Durham County Council is rejecting as “vexatious” the 106 Freedom of Information Act requests it has received after Guardian columnist Ben Goldacre attempted to mobilise his readers to file the requests on his behalf.

In an earlier post, I predicted that the requests would be rejected on the FOIA’s “acting in concert” clause, which allows officials to treat requests from an organised campaign as if they were one request. A commenter suggested that the council might actually reject the request because it is “vexatious”. I thought that this was unlikely because the request(s) clearly had a serious purpose.

I guessed wrong; the commenter right. Although Durham council’s FOI officer paid lip service to the “acting in concert” clause, he actually relied on section 14(1) (“vexatious”) to bat away the requests:

It has become apparent that the recent influx of requests received by Durham County Council on this subject is as a result of an article by Ben Goldacre, published in The Guardian (11 November 2006) and on the website www.badscience.net. It is also apparent that these requests have been sent by different persons who are acting in concert or in pursuance of a campaign. We consider these requests to be vexatious, and they are therefore refused under section 14(1) of the Freedom of Information Act 2000 (“the FOI Act”).

The officer went on to cite ICO guidance note 22 to explain what constitutes a “vexatious” FOI request:

“Where a request, which may be the latest in a series of requests, would impose a significant burden and:

  • Clearly does not have any serious purpose or value;
  • Is designed to cause disruption or annoyance;
  • Has the effect of harassing the public authority; or
  • Can otherwise fairly be characterised as obsessive or manifestly unreasonable.”

Someone should appeal, because that “or” really ought to be an “and”. The request in question clearly served a serious purpose — that should really trump the fact that answering it vexed Durham Council.

In the long term, though, attempts to combine crowdsourcing techniques with FOI requests will have to be more sophisticated. For a start, anyone hoping to coordinate something like this will have to organise the resulting requests, by breaking them into seperate questions for each participant to ask.

This technique may not be suited for filing a single complex request with a single authority. Crowdsourcing of this sort could work better is in cases where a single news outlet needs the same question answered by many different local authorities.