Citizen bloggers to get new protection to investigate public scandals

The Information Commissioner is to put bloggers on the same footing as professional journalists allowing them to gather information on individuals and public services without fear of being challenged under the Data Protection Act.

 I am indebted to this article on the excellent Inforrm blog today which reveals that the Information Commissioner has put out new guidelines to the media for consultation.

The proposals are particularly important after a series of outrageous attempts notably by Barnet Council to force local bloggers to have to register with the Data Protection Act. The aim was to force people to register so council officials and councillors could demand to know what information was held on them. Luckily they failed. This change will make it impossible for councils like Barnet to even contemplate such action.

The relevant parts -outlined in the proposed guidelines- are to exempt journalists and bloggers from the requirement to provide such information if  they are pursuing a story in the public interest.This exemption allows journalists to mount a public interest defence to most apparent breaches of the Data Protection Act but it will be easier to rely on the exemption.  This states:

  • As long as the aim is to publish a story (or for someone else to publish it), all the background information collected, used or created as part of investigation can also be exempt,
  • The  proposed rules also allow bloggers as well as journalists – if they were forced to hand over information- to redact any information which could lead to the source being identified..
  • Information about someone’s health, sex life or criminal behaviour should only be collected if the journalist is very confident the public interest overrides their right to privacy.

These changes along with the new Defamation Act should be welcomed by everyone. It amounts to official recognition that the world is changing and that public bodies, whether it be your local council, hospital, or, as is increasingly the case, private companies running public services that they should expect to be heavily scrutinised. It also serves as a warning to directors of private companies, arrogant councillors, and insensitive public providers, that they will not be able to bully active citizens who want to probe their activities and they will not be able to force the disclosure of sources or information that led to their exposure. consultation on the new guidelines from the ICO ends on April 22nd.