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UK Government Blocks Freedom of Information Requests concerning Phorm

Posted: 10th Aug, 2009 By: MarkJ
The UK governments Cabinet Office has issued what appears to be a blanket refusal to process any further Freedom of Information Act requests concerning Phorm (WebWise). This is the controversial system that raised privacy concerns because of how it works with UK broadband ISPs to monitor what websites you visit for use in targeted advertising campaigns.

The NoDPI campaign site has been informed that, under Regulation 5 of the Freedom of Information Act, the government can put a plug on the number of repeat requests when appearing to come from the same source; for cost reasons:

The Cabinet Office said:

"The Freedom of Information Act permits public authorities to aggregate two or more requests when calculating the cost of complying with requests in certain circumstances. These circumstances are where the requests are received from the same individual or from different individuals who appear to be acting in concert or in pursuance of a campaign; the requests relate, to any extent, to the same or similar information; and those requests are received within any period of sixty consecutive working days.

The Cabinet Office considers that [NoDPI] and several associates have now submitted some 35 requests for information on this subject, at least 5 of which have been made within the last 60 days. Whilst the Cabinet Office has provided you with information in reply to some of these requests where this has been possible within the cost limits provided in law, we consider that when aggregating this particular request with the other associated requests which we have received, the cost threshold will be exceeded. On this basis the Cabinet Office is unable to comply with your request."

We haven't heard much from Phorm since the apparent withdrawal of some support by its three main UK broadband ISP backers; BT , TalkTalk and Virgin Media . Still that hasn't stopped privacy campaigners keeping the pressure up, partly through a fear that Phorm or something similar could easily creep back in.

NoDPI describes this latest move as an "abuse of exemption clauses", noting that "for the Government to suggest that all requests sent by the public have been sent “in concert” with NoDPI campaigners is untenable."

It's noted that that Phorm caused a lot of concern and so the number of requests from individuals was perhaps to be expected. Many people felt that the government had been too friendly to Phorm and so it's understandable that they would seek to know more about their own internal communications with the firm.

NoDPI claims that the government is trying to "evade providing the potentially embarrassing information being requested" and has filed for a review of the decision.
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