Barnet’s mad and bad plan to censor and criminalise the nation’s bloggers

Barnet Council: Attempt to criminalize blogger Pic courtesy:http;// telegraph.co.uk

You couldn’t make this up. Barnet Council already facing trouble for illegally filming residents and bloggers coming to hear a council meeting on cuts, is now  seeking to censor and criminalize bloggers across the nation.

 The council has put in the most ludicrous complaint against a local blogger, Mr Mustard ( real name  Derek Dishman)  to the Information Commissioner claiming he has committed a criminal offence  under the Data Protection Act by not registering as a data controller  because he has made critical comments  about whether some of its officials have real jobs.

Using his right as a citizen he puts in regular FOI’requests to the council.  The row appears to have begun over critical comments questioning the council appointing a £50,000 change and innovation manager, Jonathan Tunde-Wright with  a remarkably verbose and tediously worded job description – for a job that seems to involve privatising everything. Phrases like ” delivery of  system thinking interventions” gives a  flavour ( see http://bit.ly/sQUmyA for full offending blog)

Now  Mr Tunde-Wright has his  personal website which contains his own creed for his work and  a commitment to “transparency and engagement “, ” community and accountability” and also a strong Christian belief :”  My quest to unravel the mystery of the cross of  Jesus Christ. That is a lifetime mission.” Nothing wrong with this ( Tim Montgomerie when at Conservative Home believed both in Jesus Christ and David Cameron). His website – with some interesting comments on council cuts following the recent BBC film is (  http://jonathan.uk.com/)

Now look at what Barnet Council did. On the day the Mr Mustard’s blog appeared they complained to the Information Commissioner seeking he had broken the law – and could face a £5000 fine- because he had ” processed personal data unfairly” and had no protection under the Data Protection Act.

 The council claims wrongly that ” the individuals involved do not refer to their employment with the council on their personal websites “( in fact Jonathan’s contains a link direct to Barnet Council) and ” views on the merits of their personal websites and blogs is not in the public interest.”

Initially rebuffed the council then came up with an extraordinary description of what Mr Dishman was allowed to blog without being forced to register or be prosecuted for unfairly processing data.

According to Barnet the only things bloggers can write about is their own personal data, their own family defined as people related by blood or marriage and their own household, anybody living in their house or flat.

Everything else requires registration and can be subject to legal challenge. The council even found an obscure Swedish case, involving a European Court judgement, against a member of the Swedish church  who released details of a number of local people waiting to be confirmed as why this must be done.

Luckily there has been an extremely robust response from the Information Commissioner.  They have dismissed Barnet’s second attempt with these words: ” If the ICO were to take the approach of requiring all individuals running a blog to notify as a data controller … it would lead to a situation where the ICO is expected to rule on what is acceptable for one individual to say about another.”

“Requiring all bloggers to register with this office and comply with the parts of the DPA exempted under Section 36 (of the Act) would, in our view, have a hugely disproportionate impact on freedom of expression.”

Thank God for some sanity. But what Barnet was really up to – to suppress freedom of expression, local comment  and intimidate someone who was using his right to ask them difficult Freedom of Information requests. By threatening to criminalize someone who in the ICO’s words writes a blog as a hobby, the authority is out-of-order.

If Barnet had succeeded it would have had enormous implications and costs for bloggers across the country. As Conservatives who are committed to transparency, the council should know better. They need to put up and shut up!

Barnet did not answer my questions about this. But I did contact both bloggers.

Mr Dishman said: “The likely response of the ICO if I needed to register would have been to invite me to register. I would have paid the £35 p.a. which is the only criteria to enable registration. If the council had succeeded in getting me fined £5,000 I would have paid it and then the blog would have become hyper critical and my work rate would have increased. What where they thinking? ”

He said he had no quarral with Jonathan Tunde-Wright or any of the officials named on his website.

Mr Tunde-Wright seems a bit bemused. “Speaking as a private individual it has felt like being caught in a crossfire somewhat.

” I think it is ironic that people like myself (and there are many of us in the public sector) who are truly passionate about public service and community empowerment appear to have been the targets of certain bloggers – talk of picking the wrong targets!

” I also do feel that by going beyond the Post to naming the Post Holder, referencing my personal blog and making particular comments, the said blogger may have crossed the line and placed myself and my family in this uncomfortable place of feeling harassed online.”

Barnet finally issued a statement to the Guardian today(tuesday):

“The council was concerned that an individual had used information gathered by the FOI process and linked this with other information to ridicule and abuse individual members of staff. The council consulted with the ICO as to whether this constituted a possible breach of the Data Protection Act.

 The ICO asked the council to make a formal submission, stating this was a currently a grey area.

It should be stressed that the individuals about which the council were concerned were not part of the council’s senior management team. The council does not tolerate the abuse or bullying of any of its staff.”