Politics


28
Oct 11

Vincent Tabak trial: You’re a police officer not Max Clifford

Vincent Tabak’s trial for the murder of Joanna Yeates ended today. Tabak was convicted and given a life sentence.

As is customary, a statement was read outside court on behalf of Yeates’s parents. It contained this:

For us it is with regret that capital punishment is not a possible option for his sentence. The best we can hope for him is that he spends the rest of his life incarcerated where his life is a living hell, being the recipient of all evils, deprivations and degradations that his situation can provide.

These kinds of sentiments are common in cases like this. But it wasn’t the words themselves that perplexed me so much as the person delivering them: a police officer.

Police family liaison officers (FLOs) serve an important role. In serious, complex and high-profile cases they act as a vital link between the police and the victim or the victim’s family. FLOs ensure that victims and their relatives are given appropriate information about the progress of their case. They arrange support where necessary. They provide a humane and consistent link between the police and members of the public in the most difficult and sensitive circumstances. They are a great improvement on the times when often the first a victim’s family heard about an important development in their case was when a reporter doorstepped them to ask a question about it.

But it’s very difficult to see how FLOs making public statements to the media fits into this role. Victims and their families often find the media’s desire for access unwelcome and distressing. While it might be appropriate for the police to help victims to deal with the consequences of media attention it doesn’t follow that the police should involve themselves in the process of a private citizen wanting to speak or not speak to the media. Not only does this have the potential to disrupt what is essentially a democratic process, it also leaves the police in grave danger of compromising their role as politically-neutral servants of the state.

The Yeates family’s statement is one such case.

Public policy and the law on imprisonment says that offenders are sent to prison as punishment, not for punishment. Offenders are punished by losing their freedom and the opportunities that they might have pursued were they at liberty. Prisons should not have luxury cells but nor should they be “living hells”. Prisoners are entitled to reasonable protection from violence and intimidation. They must be adequately housed and fed. They should be provided with medical and psychological care. They are entitled to be treated with respect and within the obvious confines of the situation they should be given reasonable autonomy. It follows from this that it would be against policy and in most cases against the law for the prison service or individual prison officers to make or allow a prisoner’s life to become a “living hell” where they suffer significant deprivation and degradation.

Like all private citizens, the Yeates family are entitled to hold and express whatever views they choose but I can see no justification for those views to be conveyed through a police mouthpiece with all the implied credibility that brings. It isn’t the job of the police to use public resources to help anyone contribute to a debate on policy, let alone to amplify a desire for treating someone with contempt for the law as it stands and in a way that’s contrary to the core values of the police and prison services. This brings the police into disrepute. Detective inspector Russ Jones might not agree with the sentiments in the words he read but the ease with which he read them entitles one to raise the question.

Police officers should not make their jobs harder by acting like Max Clifford. FLOs should be prohibited from speaking to the media on behalf of victims and their families. At the very least, the FLO in this case should have declined to read the parts of the statement about capital punishment and the Yeates’s hope for Tabak’s “degradation” in prison.

If the Yeates family or anyone else has a written statement that they want to give to the media they can send it directly to the Press Association. Then there will be no possibility of it tainting the police or it being given undue credibility by them.


11
Oct 11

Time to opt out of web censorship

Four major UK internet service providers will be limiting customers’ access to the internet under a new scheme proposed by the Mothers’ Union and supported by the government.

Under the new scheme, customers of BT, Sky, TalkTalk and Virgin Media will have to “opt-in” to retain the full internet access that they enjoy at present.

The Guardian writes:

Customers who do not opt in to adult content will be unable to access pornographic websites.

But this characterisation of the system is wrong. This isn’t about pornography or “adult content”, whatever that may be.

The ISPs are setting up a filtering system that will give customers a choice between access to the whole internet and access to an arbitrary subset of the internet. Now choice sounds like a fine thing. People usually like choices. But what’s the choice on offer here?

It’s not a choice between “internet with porn” and “internet without porn”.

It’s a choice between the whole internet and only the sites that the ISP decides aren’t “adult content” at any point in time. Which sites exactly? They won’t say. Site blocking lists and content filtering algorithms are always kept secret and they can and will change at any time without notice.

So if you choose to opt out of the whole internet you literally won’t know what you’re missing. That might be a choice but it’s not an informed one.

Regardless of the opaqueness of the process and the misrepresentation of the actual choice on offer, some people will be happy to take the partial internet option. Why shouldn’t ISPs offer it?

Here’s why.

I do two main things on the internet.

As a freelance consultant I use the internet to earn a living. Not only do I design and write software for the internet, most of my business comes through the internet too. It’s my workshop and my shop window rolled into one.

I’m also an activist. I use the internet to advance the causes in which I believe. The internet is an essential tool for me to participate in the democratic process of debating and disputing ideas.

What the ISPs supporting web blocking are saying is that they can arbitrarily, at any time and without notifying their customers, block access to the parts of the internet on which I do business and advance my causes. The customers that have opted for web blocking (or not opted out of it) might not care hugely but I certainly do. It’s a restraint on my freedom of speech and freedom to trade. Web blocking undermines the default assumption of the internet: that anyone can post material, anyone can link to that material and anyone can follow the link and read it.

Even as someone who isn’t in the pornography or “adult content” business, this is a huge problem.

Recently I wrote about how Facebook and other major social networks threaten the open and independent web. This article wasn’t pornographic. It was a discussion of a technology policy issue.

Several websites picked up the discussion and wrote their own views on the issue. One was Eros Blog, a site that by its own description is about “sex blogging, gratuitous nudity, kinky sex [and] sundry sensuality”.

Eros Blog’s discussion of the social media issue isn’t pornographic. Yet it’s framed on a page that includes two nude paintings and several links to sites that are either pornography or discussing adult sexual issues.

The ISPs web blocking filters will almost certainly block access to Eros Blog and take the post about my social media views with it. There will be one less place on the web where people can encounter my ideas and other people’s perspectives on them. Not my porn ideas. Not my adult content ideas. My ideas about technology and how to run the web.

The idea that you can build a “porn” blocking system without this kind of collateral damage is fanciful. Once you start switching off the lights on whole sections of the web there’s no way of knowing which words and ideas will disappear, not least for the customers who will never be given the option to find out what’s been removed.

My message to the Mothers’ Union is very simple. If you don’t want to see porn or “adult content” on the internet, don’t look at it. If you don’t want your children to see it, bring them up to share your values. You already do? Then you’ve already got the most sophisticated and effective system possible. Not only does it give you and your children freedom from seeing things you don’t want to see, it also preserves my freedom to speak to anyone who might want to hear what I’ve got to say.


9
Aug 11

Curfew? We need an anti-curfew

Our towns and cities are looted and burned.

The police have lost control of the streets. They are outnumbered and outmanoeuvred by groups of rioters springing up where they please, causing damage and dispersing just as quickly.

Our fire service is stretched to its limit. In many cases the unsafe situation on the ground means that trained firefighters are reduced simply to watching buildings burn, standing alongside those whose homes and livelihoods are going up in flames.

If the people who caused the trouble last night want to do it again tonight I’ve got no confidence that the police will be any more effective in stopping them, whatever new equipment and powers you might want to give them.

But the problem isn’t too many bad people on the streets. It’s too few good people on the streets.

The police say that law abiding citizens should stay indoors and keep out of their way. They don’t want people to be “spectators”. The police want to be able to separate the troublemakers from the rest and deal with them.

We don’t need people out on the streets as spectators, standing around to watch criminals trash their towns. We need active citizens with the numbers and the nerve to stop it.

We don’t need to get out of the police’s way because in many cases that just means getting out of the looters’ and arsonists’ way. We need to get in the way in overwhelming numbers.

The criminal element is a minority. We need to make them feel like one — outnumbered ten to one by ordinary, law-abiding people who are prepared to keep watch over the safety and property of their neighbours.

We don’t need to shut the shops early. We need to keep them open late. A closed shop does nothing to stop the family living in the flat above getting burned out of their home as happened on many occasions last night. Yesterday’s riots started so early because ordinary people abandoned their streets by late afternoon. The rioters caused mayhem in broad daylight because there was no-one to stop them.

Closing shops early is a tactic that has manifestly failed. Nothing would be worse than repeating it tonight. People need to be out shopping, drinking and partying in their town centres tonight like it’s New Year’s Eve.

Some people have suggested a curfew. But we know that the police don’t have the numbers to manage that effectively. A curfew will just lead to more shops burned and looted and more police officers injured. The police can’t be everywhere in sufficient numbers to stop that happening.

If we’re going to compel anyone we need an anti-curfew. Make it illegal to stay indoors tonight. Get everyone out and dilute the rioting minority to nothing. Don’t expect the police to do it for you because they simply can’t. If you want your town to be safe tonight you’re going to have to do it yourself.

Let’s party.

 


7
Aug 11

Were the riots inevitable?

It’s become a cliche among many people that rioting is an inevitable consequence of deprivation and injustice. Last night’s rioting in Tottenham inspired a predictable – one might say inevitable – crop of examples on Twitter:

It’s because David Cameron turns a blind eye to corruption between Murdoch and Metropolitan Police that alienation makes riots inevitable. – derekrootboy

I don’t agree with riots but was inevitable when working classes are being fucked over like this. – mollymccowen

Riots inevitable in people who cannot express their anger in any other way. Historical precedents a-plenty. – Jos21

The riots were inevitable. That’s the first thing I said when I heard about the shooting. Anger and hot summer nights are a lethal cocktail – iheni

tottenham riots Soh dem mash up Tottenham, !!! Was inevitable after the shooting of Mark Duncan (sic). Wasn’t rocket science in my book – Mafia1065

Historically it’s inevitable there are riots when there are cuts like this – HelenReloaded

the climate in our country is terrible and riots were inevitable but the looting and destroying of places of work saddens me – evey_moriarty

This was inevitable..tory government. Riots. Protests. Cuts. Unemployment. Disaffected Youth. Strikes. Recession. Police Brutality. – xxlucyxlucyxx

When people are attacked by ideological cuts and suffer racism from the police, riots like this are inevitable. – PennyRed

Riots were inevitable given building unhappiness with the manner in which the police conducts itself – dr_rita39

The Guardian is giving front-page space today to a video from a week ago in which a young man from Haringey asserts that the closure of local youth clubs will lead to riots.

Dave Osler at Liberal Conspiracy skilfully avoids the i-word but you can tell he means it:

[S]uch is the degree of disconnect between all the major parties and the street that the chances of positive engagement are next to zero. There is instead the recourse of riot.

Back at the Guardian, Dave Hill offers a slightly more nuanced explanation:

In such a climate [of economic deprivation and government cutbacks], an event such as the shooting dead by police of 29 year-old father of four Mark Duggan on Thursday night is more likely to provide in some minds, especially young ones, a pretext, a rationale or an opportunity to jettison any respect for the law or regard for fellow citizens and let rip.

These widespread views about the supposed inevitability of rioting need closer examination.

Those who make the case for inevitable rioting are rarely speaking about themselves. Journalists and commentators on comfortable middle incomes are less likely to be seriously affected by a sluggish economy, government cutbacks and police thuggery than those at the bottom of the social pile even if they’re as angry about it as anyone else. They won’t be out at 5am torching John Lewis or looting the local Jigsaw.

Nor will the people in the Guardian’s youth clubs video or those discussing the rioting on Twitter. Many of these people are likely to be in very similar circumstances to those burning, looting and attacking the emergency services.

What’s notable about the Tottenham riots and rioting in the UK in general is the scale – not how large and commonplace riots are but how small and rare. Anecdotes suggest that people were coming from across London to join a riot just a few hundred strong in Tottenham. As some of those arrested give their home addresses in court this week we’ll see whether this can be confirmed. Rioting as an activity relies on the disinhibition and physical protection of strength in numbers. Tottenham by itself may have been too small a place to recruit a critical mass of rioters.

All of which suggests that the rioting in Tottenham may be far more about the those few rioters themselves than the society in which all of us live. Rioting stems not from the social grievances and frustrations of the many but from the desire for mayhem and the lack of self control of the few. Even in boom times the UK has around a million people unemployed and looking for work. Why isn’t there a riot every day of the week?

There are adequate good reasons to provide effective public services and social opportunities for people of all backgrounds without resorting to political blackmail: do this or riots will inevitably follow. Whether you want better student funding, good youth clubs or a competent and honest police service, public policy shouldn’t be run like a protection racket. Politicians should fear the masses casting ballots not the mob casting stones.

So people need to be very cautious when talking about the supposed inevitability of riots. If one person riots but the majority of his neighbours in exactly the same circumstances do not, that’s a matter of individual differences not social breakdown. The solutions to this kind of behaviour are found in psychology and criminology not politics.

Those who talk about the inevitability of riots show gross disrespect to the vast majority of people who live peaceably with their neighbours and abide by the law despite deprivation and injustice. They show disrespect to the rioters too. If some people can’t help themselves rioting they are put outside the proper demands of the community and the law, stripped of any meaningful citizenship. They’re robbed of their moral agency too – deprived of their ability to discern the right course of action whatever the circumstances and to act accordingly.

We need to have higher expectations of everyone than that.


20
Jul 11

Should the Guardian have published Jonnie Marbles?

The pie man’s little stunt hasn’t gone down too well with almost anyone over the mental age of 12, whatever their politics. So should the Guardian have given Jonathan May-Bowles a.k.a. “comedy persona” Jonnie Marbles the opportunity to put his side of the story?

Guardian contributor Sunny Hundal thinks May-Bowles is an important voice and deserves to be heard. Moreover, the little people below the line like me shouldn’t have the temerity to question the Guardian’s weakest editorial decision since that nasty Max Gogarty business.

 

Free speech is a wonderful thing. Freedom of the press likewise. But that doesn’t mean that quality newspapers should give space to every immature half-wit that manages to barge his way into 15 seconds of live TV, especially if they end up in handcuffs with a face full of shaving foam. Interview them if you really must, but give them their own column? No.

So for the future reference of those with editorial tin ears, here’s a selection of Guardian readers’ thoughts on the issue.

tkforde

Comment may be free but the Guardian should exercise more wisdom in choosing who to allow advertise themselves. Marbles’ action had no merit.

He should have been left to fade into obscurity or to be a curious footnote to this sordid News Corporation story.

bradley1

Whilst he may not have been paid for this is it right and proper for the Guardian to give him more oxygen of publicity? I think not

MaryVirgo

Hey Guardian people

So you didn’t want the comments to turn into an ‘abuse fest’?

What did you think would happen?

I can’t believe you wasted time on the idiotic behaviour of a feeble-minded publicity hounded. I really am disgusted with him and a little with you too, I’m sorry to say.

SoAnnoyed

The appearance of this article shows really poor judgment on the Guardian’s part.

AzrinMyst

Why Guardian? Why?

richardoxford

this being run by the Guardian is up with the articles saying cyclists shouldn’t be prosecuted for injuring and killing people or it’s fine to burn down a Tesco’ s

solipticat

You, my friend, are a shameless self-promoting opportunist. I guess your stunt worked because now the Guardian has given you a platform.

Just go away. Don’t give any interviews, don’t write anything, stop commenting, stop tweeting. Your ridiculous “activist” affectations are not welcome. You have humiliated yourself. Just leave.

OccamsClaymore

Is this what the Guardian has come to?

branimira

Can the Guardian please explain why you have given space to this man to further promote his actions?

The less we hear about/from him, the better.

TarzantheApeMan

Jonnie you shamed UK Uncut, you shamed the Labour Party which you are a member, by attacking an 80 yr old man. Now you have shamed and soiled the Guardian.

1ITGirl

Dear Guardian.
Just why are you giving this guy a platform to speak about his hideous actions..

PeterGriffin

This is the sort of piece the Guardian sticks up to gather unique hits isn’t it? Also, it’s giving Marbles the attention he’s clearly seeking, which is annoying to say the least as he’s not the bloody story. Widespread corruption of the establishment is the story, not someone looking to push up their profile under the thinnest of excuses.

After the sterling work the Guardian have done over the hacking I expected better than them giving space to this ‘comedian’.

chrispicable

Own goal by The Guardian

SoAnnoyed

Nick Davies and his historic work on the hacking scandal is why I love the Guardian.

Jonnie Marbles and click-whoring articles like this one are why I hate the Guardian.

WSobchak

Guardian, you’ve come up with the best investigative journalism in years, you really don’t need to give space to someone who makes Colin Hunt look self-aware.

jijiandnoah

It was a stupid and crass act, and to be honest I’m disappointed with the Guardian for even letting you get any further publicity by putting this feeble explanation up here.

bananacannon

we could just ignore the fool… eh Guardian?

HunterKincaid

Who made you the voice of the public?

I don’t for one minute think you did this for anyone other than yourself. Shame on you! And shame on the Guardian for giving you a voice!

PeterGriffin

I get the impression the Guardian thought this would be a piece where people would actually defend Marbles (his real name is Jonathan May-Bowles) and we’d have a nice piece where Guardianistas would cheer our brave hero on. I don’t think they genuinely expected the venom being thrown at him from all side of the political spectrum, though they obviously expected the right to pile on and therefore generate lots of lovely web traffic.

Helioss

The Guardian has totally misjudged giving this sad loser the oxygen of publicity that he so craves.

But at least he now knows how hated he is by the very people whose approval he sought.

aureliano5

You should not have done it
You should not have tried to justify it
The TV streams should not have given you the shots afterwards
The Guardian should not have given you space

AngloAndy

Shame on The Guardian for running such a piece by one whose actions detracted from the due process of a parliamentary inquiry of national importance.

It seems that both The Guardian and the attacker are both getting to be ‘far too big’ for their boots.

timwilkinsonlewis

This guy might be the worst waste of space on the Guardian since that feller who thought he deserved an opinion column just because he wore skinny jeans.

Red98860

Guardian has debased itself by giving this execrable specimen column space.

 


1
Feb 11

police.uk official crime maps — there should be a law against it

It’s always good when open data makes the headlines, albeit slightly for the wrong reasons today. Nonetheless, too much traffic to our website is a problem we’d all like to have. It shows public interest if nothing else. After all, who wouldn’t want an easy way to find out how much crime is on their street and in their neighbourhood?

But before we fall over ourselves to be grateful for this latest attempt at transparency we should exercise more than a little caution.

This won’t be news to anyone who thinks seriously about data, but a map is a visualisation, not the data itself. It’s one way of representing the underlying data. In as much as the data is accurate, complete and relevant, the police.uk website is simply giving us a single way to look at it that’s already been decided for us. No matter how often we’re reminded that the map is not the territory (and let’s be honest, most people have never heard that saying, let alone considered the issues in any depth), if you’ve only got the map it might as well be the territory. Psychologically, the two become conflated.

Perhaps apocryphally, Stalin said that it’s not who votes that counts but who counts the votes. Likewise, we should be hugely cautious about giving too much weight to official visualisations of data. As the policing minister Nick Herbert wrote today (my emphasis):

We live in the age of accountability and transparency. The public deserve to know what is happening on their streets, and they want action. By opening up this information, and allowing the public to elect Police and Crime Commissioners, we are giving people real power – and strengthening the fight against crime.

So what we’re looking at here isn’t a value-neutral scientific exercise in helping people to live their daily lives a little more easily, it’s an explicitly political attempt to shape the terms of a debate around the most fundamental changes in British policing in our lifetimes.

Transparency isn’t wrong. It’s absolutely vital to make a meaningful contribution to public debate, but we need to distinguish pseudo-transparency from the real thing. Spatial visualisation and analysis is enormously difficult to get right and even thoughtfully-designed visualisations require a fair bit of understanding to interpret correctly. Slap it on a map works fine when you just want to see where your local recycling centres are, but as soon as you start to classify crimes by type and bound them into streets and neighbourhoods you’re into the realm of professional spatial analysis. You need to know what you’re doing and have access to tools that enable you to shift category and spatial boundaries to account for anomalous effects. The newspapers that have run lists of the most crime-ridden streets in the country today might want to consider the fact that longer streets will on average have more crime than shorter streets, just to take one simple example of a relevant factor that’s not accounted for if you want to visualise this data in that way.

Whether police.uk is trying to pull a fast one on us or is simply naive about the possibilities for doing something meaningful for a general audience with this data, the result is the same: plenty of heat and very little light. Mark Monmonier’s How to lie with maps provides a good starter text for the myriad ways in which maps can deceive, intentionally and otherwise.

On a more positive note, we’re also getting the data itself to use. This is a good thing, in as much as the data itself is, as stated above, accurate, complete and relevant. Unfortunately, it’s not. It’s derived data that’s already been classified, rounded and lumped together in various ways, with a bit of location anonymising thrown in for good measure. I haven’t had a detailed look at it yet but I would caution against trying to use it for anything serious. A whole set of decisions have already transformed the raw source data (individual crime reports) into this derived dataset and you can’t undo them. You’ll just have to work within those decisions and stay extremely conscious that everything you produce with it will be prefixed, “as far as we can tell”.

£300K for this? There ought to be a law against it. Worse than useless, it’s thoroughly misleading. In future, we need fine-grained datasets for these kinds of applications and a big head start (six months?) between publishing official data and the commissioning of official expensive projects around it to ensure that everyone really understands what can and should be done with it.


7
Jan 11

TfL’s information doesn’t want to be free

I’m a big fan of London’s Barclays Cycle Hire scheme. I praised it when it was introduced, I created a free API service for developers to help them get live data about bike availability to make useful apps for people, I built a realtime 3D visualisation of bike availability and I even wrote a simulator to help me better understand bike movement patterns. I still think it’s a great system and I’m keen to do what I can to help people use it and to make it work better.

So when Boris announced that the scheme had just passed its one millionth journey milestone it seemed like a good time to ask Transport for London for the journey data. It’s an easy enough job: Just a single database query to fetch the times, origin and destination of each trip. If I could load this data into my simulator I might be able to see where extra bikes and docking stations might be needed. I put in a Freedom of Information Act request, confident that I’d have the data within the 20 working days limit required by law.

That was three months ago on 8 October. I’m still waiting.

The good news is that the data has just been made available in TfL’s developers’ area and some people are already starting to do interesting and useful things with it. But behind that happy fact is another example of a public body deciding to completely ignore their Freedom of Information Act responsibilities and the rights of an applicant in pursuit of its own perceived interests.

Data delayed is data denied

Under the law, public bodies have got 20 working days to reply either with the information requested or to claim an exemption. The time limit is there for a good and obvious reason: Without it, public bodies can string an applicant along indefinitely, and with many requests being time-sensitive this can often past the point where the information would be useful.

Fortunately I didn’t have a specific deadline for using this data but it certainly would have been more useful to me sooner rather than later. I could have been working on it for two months by now. And if TfL had been keen for other developers to use it, they could have had it too. Some developers were keen to get hold of it for the Open Data Hackday on 4 December last year but that came and went without any sign of the data.

So why was the data delayed? I estimate that there would have been less than two hours work to produce it and send it to me, or to put it on an open website where anyone could download the file.

“Your free information is in this locked box. Sign this contract and if we like what you’re doing you can have it.”

The answer lies in TfL’s desire to wrap the data in a complicated contract rather than make it available to me or anyone else directly and legally unencumbered. This might make sense in the context of some data and some data users but it’s directly inimical to the aims and indeed the law of freedom of information. The data in TfL’s developers’ area isn’t open data and it’s not available to everyone. As the site says:

Please complete the registration form below to use our syndication feeds. Before we give permission to use any feeds, we need to know how they will be used, where they will be used and how many people are likely to view them.

So why should anyone have to apply for permission to get access to their freedom of information answer? Why not just send it to the applicant?

The Information Commissioner, who regulates public bodies’ compliance with the Freedom of Information Act is quite clear that information must be supplied regardless of the identity and motives of the applicant. His guidance (PDF) states:

A request therefore has to be considered on the basis that it could have been made by any person; the identity of that person is not a material consideration when deciding whether or not to release information. It is for this reason that we do recommend as good practice that requests under obvious pseudonyms should normally be considered unless there is reason to think that any of the matters below need to be taken into account.

There follows some general exceptions regarding vexatious requests, people requesting their own personal information and costs issues, none of which apply in this case.

On the issue of the applicant’s motives:

There is also no specific reference in the FOIA to the principle that requests for information must be considered without reference to the motives of the requester.

However, there are no references in the Act indicating that anyone can be asked to provide a reason for requesting information and it is from this absence that the principle [of disregarding the applicant's motives] is drawn.

The Information Commissioner then quotes the Lord Chancellor’s code of practice on freedom of information:

Authorities should be aware that the aim of providing assistance is to clarify the nature of the information sought, not to determine the aims or motivation of the applicant. Care should be taken not to give the applicant the impression that he or she is obliged to disclose the nature of his or her interest as a precondition to exercising the rights of access, or that he or she will be treated differently if he or she does (or does not).

But if I want to get a response to my FOI request from TfL I am asked to enter into a contract with them whose terms include:

2.1.2 [You shall] only use the Transport Data in accordance with these Terms and Conditions and the Syndication Developer Guidelines, and not use such information in any way that causes detriment to TfL or brings TfL into disrepute. The rights granted to You under these Terms and Conditions are limited to accessing and displaying or otherwise making available the Transport Data for the purposes stated by You in Your registration.

So not only is TfL’s contract explicitly asking me to state my motive as a precondition of access, it also constrains me from using the information for any other purpose and arguably prevents me from using that information to criticise TfL, thereby causing it “detriment” or bringing it into “disrepute”. If I don’t agree to this they can deny access altogether and if I subsequently break the agreement in their view they can revoke access. This is a funny kind of free information.

The Freedom of Information Act is designed to enable scrutiny of government. It’s inevitable that some information requested may cause embarrassment to the public body providing it or even bring it into disrepute. If the law is going to be workable at all, public bodies must consider each application on its merits alone without concerning themselves with the applicant or their motives. To do otherwise would allow public bodies to effectively pick and choose which requests they answered. TfL’s decision to require me to enter into an extremely restrictive contract with them to get a response to my freedom of information request is applicant and motive discrimination by the back door. It’s not something that should be tolerated from TfL much less adopted by other public bodies as a way to weaken FOI applicants’ rights. Free information should not come wrapped in a restrictive contract wall. That’s why I won’t be accepting TfL’s terms and I’ll simply have to leave the analysis of this Cycle Hire data in the very capable hands of others.