Hiding or removing information

Your Alaveteli site first and foremost publishes requests and responses, but there are circumstances when you will need to hide information too. This page summarises what you might need to do, and how Alaveteli supports it.

We know from our own experience running WhatDoTheyKnow in the UK that it is sometimes necessary to remove information from the site. Furthermore, sometimes this needs to be done sensitively, swiftly, and transparently.

This page provides an overview of the ways you can hide or remove things from your Alaveteli site, and some reasons why you might need to.

Hiding, deleting, editing & redacting

There are four different approaches to removing information on your site:

  • Hiding keeps the data, but does not display it. Administrators (and, optionally, the user who made a request that has been hidden) can still access hidden the content.

  • Deleting removes the item completely. This makes sense for spam, but generally we recommend hiding rather than deleting content.

  • Editing lets an administrator change text in messages.

  • Redacting is the automated removal of content based on pattern-matching (for example, removing all occurrences of a particular bank account number).

Two important types of removal

There are two particular circumstances where removal of information is required and may need special handling.

Takedown requests

Because your Alaveteli site automatically publishes messages, sometimes it will display information that someone feels should be taken down. They will contact you demanding or appealing for its removal: this is a takedown request,. The automatic way Alaveteli publishes messages, combined with the nature of Freedom of Information work, means that takedown requests often do have merit. Part of the role of your admin team is to handle them quickly and fairly. Furthermore, the details of specific cases can sometimes be complicated, and may have legal implications — for example, if the information is libellous or contravenes local laws.

We recommend you have a process in place for handling these events when they occur. The team that runs WhatDoTheyKnow in the UK responds to each takedown request in this way:

  • hide the message or request if it’s clear the correspondence is clearly inappropriate
  • if information has been hidden, let the person who requested the takedown know that the information has been hidden pending a decision by your admin team
  • hide, delete, restore or keep the information hidden, depending on the outcome of the admin decision

Accidental releases of data

Another situation which sometimes arises when running an Alaveteli site is the inadvertent release of data. This is where a body accidentally includes sensitive data as part of their response. When this does happen, it is often in the attachments (such as spreadsheets). The nature of these accidental releases can sometimes be very serious, because often the source of the data is an official body whose data may be sensitive.

When this happens, you should hide the data immediately and review the situation. You may be guided to some extent by the local law. For example, in the UK, we report any such incidents to the Information Commissioner. Sometimes the inadvertently released data is not sensitive, and publication of it may be in the public interest. These are decisions that your admin team will need to make, taking any legal implications into consideration.

Often, where data has been included in a response by accident, the body will provide a corrected replacement response — and perhaps the ombudsman or information commissioner has been notified — it might be necessary (and possibly a legal obligation) to delete the material from both the site and the server.

How hiding works: prominence

Alaveteli displays things depending on their prominence. When you hide requests or responses, you do so by changing their prominence, which you can do in the admin interface.

You can set the prominence for a whole page (that is, a request and any messages, including responses associated with it), or any individual message.

Prominence Effect
normal The item is displayed.
backpage (only applicable to a whole page)
The page is displayed, but is never included in lists of requests or search results on the site.
This discourages people from finding a request, but they can access it if they have the URL (which external search engines may be linking to).
Messages within this page can themselves be hidden.
hidden The item is not displayed.
Instead, a message such as "This message has been hidden"* is shown, followed by a specific reason for it having been hidden if the administrator has provided one.
requester_only If the viewing user is logged in as the requester themselves (or an administrator):
the item is displayed, together with a notice indicating that it is hidden to all but the requester, followed by a specific reason for it having been hidden if the administrator has provided one.
otherwise:
The item is not displayed, and an explanation is shown (same as hidden, above).

* the actual message may be different, depending on your theme or translation.

Hiding requests and responses

The general process for hiding messages that Alaveteli has sent or received is to find it in the admin interface, go to edit it, and change the prominence. For more detail, see:

The most common reason for hiding a message is if it contains personal, sensitive, or libellous content.

If the body of the message contains other information which is relevant and can be published, you should edit the message instead of hiding it.

If a request is obviously vexatious, and especially if it has been created by a user who repeatedly makes such requests, you should hide it. People who are making their first Freedom of Information requests using your site may be influenced by the precedent of requests that have already been published. Hiding inappropriate requests may encourage good ones.

Editing or hiding annotations (comments)

Annotations are comments added by users to a request page. As an administrator, you can edit, hide or unhide them. The admin interface makes it easy for you to select and hide multiple comments on a single request page (rather than doing it individually).

For instructions, see:

Deleting

In general, you should only delete material (that is, destroy it) if you’re sure it has no content that you, as administrator, will need to access, and if nothing else depends on it now or later. For example, you should delete obvious spam messages, but perhaps not an outgoing request that might elicit a genuine response from the target body (even if you know it’s not a valid Freedom of Information request).

Remember that under normal circumstances Alaveteli will have sent the request before you delete it. Deleting it after it has been sent removes it from the site, and means any responses that are sent back to this request will instead end up in the holding pen. This is why it is generally better to hide the request instead.

For instructions, see:

If you delete a request, that operation cannot be undone.

Editing a message

As an administrator, you can change the text that is displayed in incoming or outgoing messages.

Remember that normally this means you're changing a message after it has been sent — you won't be changing what was delivered, only what is displayed on your site.

For instructions, see:

Obviously you should only do this to remove information that should not be displayed. Examples of why you might need to do this:

  • the message sender mistakenly included personal information in the request body, not realising it would be displayed publicly

  • the body’s response includes personal information wrongly included in the original request, which has been quoted

  • part of the message contains obscene or libellous text — this can sometimes happen because, although the request is valid, the requester is angry or upset about the circumstances that have led to it being made

When you edit text, we recommend you clearly replace any text you remove with an indication in place, such as “[personal information removed]” or “[telephone number redacted]”.

Redacting

Redacting information is more complicated than the other methods, because it is automatic. There are several considerations here:

  • because it is automatic, you must be careful that you do not redact information that does not need to be hidden — this may be very difficult to ensure

  • the mechanism for redaction is powerful, so be careful not to make mistakes in complex cases

  • redaction can be computationally expensive, so don’t overuse it

  • automatic redaction of material, especially in attachments (such as PDFs or image files) can never be 100% effective

Redaction is controlled by censor rules that describe the patterns in text that Alaveteli should remove, and the text it should use as a replacement (for example, “[passport number redacted]”). The rules are applied to messages before their contents are published on your site. Redaction attempts to remove text from attachments to messages, as well as the message text itself.

Censor rules can easily be set to apply to an individual request, or all requests for a given user. It’s possible, with some coding, to apply redaction to other scopes too.

For details, see: