The long-running controversy over Republic of China in-exile President Tsai Ing-wen’s 1983 PhD thesis, submitted to the London School of Economics Library in June 2019, thirty-five years late, spurred a never-before mass purge at the What Do They Know website. The website, designed to help the public with Freedom of Information requests, has done a backwards somersault and purged citizen activists from its data base.
The purge, announced in March, ousted over one hundred accounts, cancelled three hundred FOI requests, and deleted 1,600 posts. The purge was announced by Senior Developer Gareth Rees in behalf of the management team which is operated by a group called MySociety.
MySociety now operates in forty countries where they brag, “We help people be active citizens with technology, research and data that individuals, journalists, and civil society can use, openly and for free.”
MySociety claims to want to “empower citizens to take their first steps towards greater civic participation.” The purge of citizens, many Taiwanese, seeking information from either the University of London or the London School of Economics is contrary to the stated mission of MySociety.
Spokesman Rees said that instead of representing a strong public interest in the validity of President Tsai’s PhD degree, the many requests represent something more sinister emanating from the People’s Republic of China. MySociety’s public announcement provides details.
“We recently became aware of extensive misuse of our Freedom of Information site WhatDoTheyKnow, in connection with the academic status of Taiwanese politician Dr Tsai Ing-wen.”
“This activity became apparent through a very large quantity of correspondence being sent through the site, all focusing on the validity of Dr Ing-wen’s qualification from the London School of Economics and Political Science.”
“The majority of this material was repeating the same or very similar FOI requests, and some were not valid requests at all. We also saw mass posting of annotations, some on completely unrelated requests, and new requests which copied the titles of unrelated existing requests in an apparent attempt to evade our attention.”
“We robustly contest unjustified requests to remove material from our service, and will only remove any substantive Freedom of Information requests and responses if we absolutely have to.”
“We initially treated this misuse assuming good faith, putting significant effort into removing problematic material from correspondence while continuing to publish elements which could have amounted to a valid Freedom of Information request.”
“Several users took the time to report the misuse of our service to us, for which we are thankful. As a matter of course, we review all material reported to us and assess it before making a decision on what to do. It took our small team of staff and volunteers a significant amount of time to respond to the number of reports made in this case.”
“While rejecting one FOI request on this subject as vexatious, LSE raised the possibility that people in China could be making requests to benefit from the country’s citizen evaluation system, stating:
“We have been made aware that there is the possibility that the LSE has been added to a list of targets to gain social credits in China. As such we believe that your request and the others we received in this time period have not been made for just the purpose of receiving information but for personal gain.”
“With this information in hand, we were confident to treat the issue as mass misuse, more akin to spam or even a disinformation attack than to people making misguided requests.”
“During the course of this situation, we have banned 108 user accounts, most of which have been created to circumnavigate previous bans and to post inappropriate material to our site. We removed more than 300 requests from the site and 1,640 comments from pages.”
“To put this in context, we only banned 126 newly created user accounts in the whole of 2021, mainly for spamming.”
“When we are alerted to correspondence on the subject in question, we will not be taking our usual approach of trying to preserve any valid FOI request contained within broader correspondence. We will instead make a very quick assessment of whether it appears to be a genuine request for information or part of the concerted misuse campaign, in which case the request will be hidden.”
“The users making these requests will then be banned without warning or notification. The same will apply to any comments being made on existing requests. It will be up to any users that are banned in this process to make a case to us that they are making genuine FOI requests.”
“We may never fully understand what exact circumstances instigated this wave of misuse, but it has been instructive, and has helped us formulate new ways to tackle the always surprising means by which our work – to help citizens make valid requests for information in public – can be temporarily derailed.”
“We believe that transparency matters because it discourages bad governance, helps citizens to understand how power is wielded, and can be used by citizens to exert power over public and private bodies.”
“We aim to bring transparency to the operation of Freedom of Information laws by by public bodies.”
What the 108 users that were banned are likely wondering is how did their being purged from the website help bring transparency to the operation of the law? One of the so-called misusers of What Do They Know is a respected Taiwanese-American professor, Hwan Lin, who travelled to London in 2019 to examine first-hand President Tsai’s thesis Unfair Trade Practices and Safeguard Actions. Lin was doing follow-up research to his on-site examination of the thesis when he made use of What Do They Know. Lin, a PhD himself, wants to know how the purge of academic inquiries to universities helps citizens obtain accountability.
“I made an FOIA request to LSE in January 2022 and another two FOIA requests to the University of London in February 2022. They are all about the controversies of Ing-wen Tsai’s doctoral thesis and degree. The January request has long been overdue, while the two February requests were labelled as vexatious for no legitimate reasons. Even more absurd was the ensuing suspension of my What Do They Know account, ridding me of rights to information from public authorities.”
President Tsai keeps the thesis controversy alive by steadfastly refusing to release the viva examination report which purportedly approved her thesis. The London School of Economics recently added to the mystery by admitting the identity of Tsai’s examiners was “unclear” and that the school “cannot be sure” who the examiners were.
President Tsai’s disregard for the interest of the public, expecially in Taiwan, about her tardy thesis and refusal to release her viva oral examination report has compromised her credibility according to critics.
MySociety, in listening to “several users” have shut out over one hundred people seeking information about the credibility of a government leader and in doing so has likewise now compromised its own mission.