Ofcom appeals order to release mobile mast data

Ofcom is appealing a decision by the Information Tribunal to the High Court that the media regulator says could derail a system which tells the public where mobile phone masts are located.

The Sitefinder website gives the location of masts on a map and is searchable against postcodes or addresses. Individual mast information such as the name of the operator is also available when a user clicks on an individual base station.

A freedom of information request demanding that all the detailed information held by Ofcom be provided in a single, searchable database has been backed by the Information Commissioner and the Information Tribunal.

The request, which was made by Ian Henton, the information manager for NHS body Health Protection Scotland, included in its scope some information used by Ofcom but not disclosed to the public by the Sitefinder site.

Operators have withdrawn their co-operation from the site and Ofcom said that if the request is successful the site will no longer be useful.

The site was created in response to a 2000 report by Sir William Stewart, chairman of the Independent Expert Group on Mobile Phones, which called for such a site to be created and maintained.

Mobile phone operators have voluntarily provided Ofcom with information on masts and Ofcom has created and hosted the site. Ofcom and the operators, though, have resisted the attempts to provide the information in a different format. Mobile operators have now stopped providing Ofcom with information for the site.

"It was never intended that the entire Sitefinder national database be available in the public domain as this would entail serious competitive and commercial issues for each of the operators," said a spokeswoman for trade body the Mobile Operators' Association. "However, the operators fully support Sitefinder continuing to be publicly searchable by postcode, streetname, or locality."

Ofcom opposed the freedom of information request but was ordered by the Information Commissioner to provide the requested information. It appealed to the Information Tribunal and lost its case there.

The regulator has now launched an appeal to the High Court over the ruling. It said that it has decided to appeal because it is "concerned that Sitefinder would cease to be a valuable information tool for the public as the MNOs [mobile network operators] indicated that they would cease to provide data".

Operators say that the data they provide is commercially sensitive and that, if published in a database format with the additional requested information, it could result in damage to their networks or their businesses.

The database format could, for example, allow a person to search for and locate one operator's entire network of base stations.

Ofcom initially claimed that the information which Henton requested fell under the Environmental Information Regulations and said that under those regulations the information did not need to be disclosed in a new format because it was already publicly available.

Later in the process, Ofcom claimed that the complete database of information fell under another exemption in the Environmental Information Regulations: the complete body of information was in fact not in the public domain and was protected by an intellectual property exemption. It argued that the public interest in disclosing the information did not outweigh the public interest in maintaining the exemption.

The Information Commissioner rejected those arguments, saying that there was no adverse effect on the intellectual property rights attached to the information, and that the information did not have the quality of confidence.

Ofcom appealed to the Information Tribunal, at which point operator T-Mobile joined the process as an additional party. It was claimed at that stage that if exact locations of masts were published it would give criminals the opportunity to vandalise masts or, in the context of rising commodity and metal prices, strip them of materials for sale. T-Mobile also argued that networks could be targeted by terrorists wanting to disrupt communications if entire network plans were made available.

The Information Tribunal said that much of the information is already available in planning applications, but that the publishing of a database might increase the danger of successful criminal activity slightly.

The Tribunal had different reasons for supporting Henton's request, but it did decide that the Commissioner was correct in ordering the release of the information to Henton.