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Climatic Research Unit Broke British Information Law

Climate researchers at the University of East Anglia in the United Kingdom broke the law by withholding data from public scrutiny, say various reports today. The university’s Climatic Research Unit (CRU) has been at the center of the so-called “climategate” controversy since thousands of internal e-mails and files were posted to greenhouse skeptic blogs in November.

As reported by ScienceInsider last year, the e-mails included indications that CRU head Phil Jones had tried to illegally shield data and correspondence from disclosure requests made under the U.K.’s Freedom of Information laws.  Jones stepped down from his position in December while investigations are underway.

Now Britain’s Information Commissioner’s Office says CRU probably broke the law, but that Jones and other officials won’t be prosecuted because more than 6 months have passed since the alleged breach. “The legislation prevents us from taking any action but from looking at the emails it’s clear to us a breach has occurred,” an ICO spokesman told The Times.

The ICO statement came in response to complaints, here and here.

They were filed by David Holland, a U.K. citizen. Mr. Holland had been seeking release of correspondence related to the CRU’s role in preparing the paleoclimate chapter of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s Fourth Assessment Report.

The Information Commissioner’s full statement follows:

Norfolk Police are investigating how private emails have become public. The Information Commissioner’s Office is assisting the police investigation with advice on data protection and freedom of information.

The emails which are now public reveal that Mr Holland’s requests under the Freedom of Information Act were not dealt with as they should have been under the legislation. Section 77 of the Freedom of Information Act makes it an offence for public authorities to act so as to prevent intentionally the disclosure of requested information.

Mr Holland’s FOI requests were submitted in 2007/8, but it has only recently come to light that they were not dealt with in accordance with the Act. The legislation requires action within six months of the offence taking place, so by the time the action taken came to light the opportunity to consider a prosecution was long gone.

The ICO is gathering evidence from this and other time-barred cases to support the case for a change in the law. It is important to note that the ICO enforces the law as it stands – we do not make it. It is for government and Parliament to consider whether this aspect of the legislation should be strengthened to deter this type of activity in future.

We will be advising the University about the importance of effective records management and their legal obligations in respect of future requests for information. We will also be studying the investigation reports (by Sir Muir Russell and Norfolk Police), and we will then consider what regulatory action, if any, should then be taken under the Data Protection Act.