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Dean's Digital World
Whatever Happened to Freedom of Information?
By Dean Tudor
The more open a society (e.g., USA, which has had FOI legislation
since 1946 and the philosophy where everything is "open"
unless labelled "closed"), the more government files that
are available. The more closed (e.g., UK, where everything is closed
unless labelled open), the fewer files that are available. At a
recent National Institute for Computer-Assisted Reporting conference
in Boston, Milverton Wallace from the City University of London
said that the Blair government is reneging on promises to introduce
FOI legislation in Great Britain. The cabinet minister pushing FOI
was bounced in the latest scandal, and his replacement is against
FOI (conspiracy theories, anyone?). Most UK senior civil servants
are also against FOI.
Canada is mid-way between USA and UK in regards to FOI. Here, progress
is at a snail's pace -- it took almost 15 years for 9 provinces
and 2 territories to get their own FOI/privacy-type legislation
in place (PEI is odd-fellow out).
There's plenty of primer-type materials on what's in the various
acts, and how to use them, etc. But virtually nothing on "what's
wrong" or academic studies. Nevertheless, even in so small
an area as "FOI progress", we can safely say that journalists
are leaders. How about that!
So what seems to be the problem with FOI/privacy, in getting government files and data? Plenty...and it's about time we all did something about it.
First, there has always been a lot of footdragging by officials
in getting the requested materials. This has been blamed on everything,
from budget cuts to extra work to filling in too many forms to low
blood sugar -- and tons of other excuses. These guys have more rationalizations
than students trying to get out of a term essay. Staffing cutbacks
are real, but there are ways this impact could be minimized.
Second, there has always been a civil servant resistance to the
viewing of inner government workings by non-bureaucrats, especially
by journalists. Managers may claim a concern for privacy, especially
in business and competitive industries, but that's hogwash. In most
cases, it is an over-concern that sends up red flags all over the
place. Many honest bureaucrats really do have a fear of embarrassment,
a need for protecting government interests. Indeed, some departments
get so few requests that staff can usually spend days analyzing
*WHY* the request was made and *HOW* the Minister can be protected.
Third, over time, older laws do not cover some public institutions
such as municipalities (e.g., Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Newfoundland).
They have never been amended in order to do this. But at the same
time some governments have amended their laws to restrict access
to some files held by the public sector (e.g., Ontario, Manitoba,
Alberta). Other public bodies (or their services) have been contracted
out to private non-profit corporations that are automatically exempt
from FOI laws.
Fourth, there are excessive charges for both labour and files. Photocopied paper records are charged by the each (if you need a thousand pages, you'll pay a lot of money), and this philosophy has been extended to computer records, where hundreds of documents are charged by the each instead of by the cost of the format , i.e. of the floppy, tape or CD-ROM. The impact of computers on public information has been phenomenal. Public data banks can be used for things never intended when the information they contain was collected. This is the mosaic theory of bits and pieces of disparate files coming together, that add up to a story. Add to this the fact that governments routinely sell their files to businesses (for advertising and marketing purposes) for big bucks; they are loathe to sell the same material to journalists or researchers for a fair fee, for the files could then be resold to businesses for peanuts. Governments don't trust anyone. Conspiracy theories, anyone?
Is there anyone doing anything about this in Canada? Well, sort
There was a major FOI research project at Queens University, conducted
by Alasdair Roberts, an associate professor in the School of Policy
Studies. In Fall 1997, the Canadian Newspaper Association provided
a grant to examine the state of FOI laws in Canada. The project
conducted over 100 interviews with requestors and officials from
all over Canada. The first part of the study was released in April
1998, along with all of its research resources collected. Entitled
"Limited Access", it concluded that "public sector
restructuring threatens the effectiveness of federal and provincial
freedom of information laws.... Several of the steps being taken
by governments -- including budget cuts, the transfer of functions
out of government, and increased fees for information services --
may weaken governmental openness and accountability."
The second part of the FOI research began in January 1999. "Its
aim is to explore how performance monitoring can be used to improve
governmental compliance with the requirements of FOI laws."
At the Web site <http://qsilver.queensu.ca/~foi> you can
find a table of Canadian FOI laws, a listing of what institutions
are covered by FOI laws, who administers them, and how they are
enforced, along with Web resources and a bibliography. Unfortunately,
the report itself is only available as a .pdf file (this means you
need Adobe Acrobat to read it), and not as an .html file (readable
over the Internet). "Limited Access", indeed !! Maybe
this is why the study has dropped out of sight? I've sent E-mails
to the Study Group and the CNA requesting .html format, but I've
never had an adequate response. The study was released and the CNA
commented on it, and then it went away.
Where was the publicity? Who has taken up the torch? There are
no easy answers: we'll look at some of them in the next issue of
Sources. Meanwhile, most activities are being done
at a slow level by groups of journalists.
For instance, there is a new section of the Ryerson Institute for Computer-Assisted Reporting in Canada: the Canadian Freedom of Information Co-ordination Office. This began in April 1998, and is being re-launched in Summer 1999 with additional research funding. Its goal is to provide the necessary information, guidance, and examples for journalists to take advantage of these FOI laws, with a view to providing professionally-relevant academic research into both electronic and current FOI laws.
The Office came about as a way to obtain electronic databases from
governments without having to pay hideous costs; it wants to lobby
for cheaper access to open computer files. The Office maintains
examples of FOI usage, a database of FOI contacts, an electronic
bibliography of documents (academic, legal and journalistic), with
lists of World Wide Web resources. There is more to come, but it
is slow <http://ricarc.rcc.ryerson.ca>.
The Canadian Association of Journalists has published a few articles in Media (Spring 1998), and at the 1998 Conference, Mike Gordon, a producer with TVOntario, set up an FOI caucus to look into Canadian journalism and FOI. It has met sporadically over the past year, but little seems to have come of it. They did launch a statement on the CAJ Web site about the impending 1999 changes to Ontario FOI laws, but there was no follow-up. Earlier, the CAJ and the Canadian Committee to Protect Journalists (now called Canadian Journalists for Free Expression) presented a December 1995 brief to the Ontario government on the then-impending changes to Ontario's FOI legislation.
They incorrectly called it "Access to Information and Protection
of Privacy Act" and the "Municipal Access to Information
and Protection of Privacy Act" -- it should not be "Access
to..." but rather "Freedom of..." They obviously
confused the Federal wording with the provincial wording. Maybe
that's why the brief sank out of sight. Get it right, guys: most
embarrassing for journalists! At least change the Web site... <http://www.eagle.ca/caj/foi.html>
There seems to be more activity on the West Coast -- the British
Columbia Journalists Committee for Freedom of Information <http://www.direct.ca/bcjc/>
represents print, broadcast, freelance journalists and media lawyers.
Their report "For the Record" contains 157 important newspaper
stories published in BC as a direct result of FOI laws. They are
part of a larger province-wide campaign for open government launched
by the BC Freedom of Information and Privacy Association <http://www.grannyg.bc.ca/FIPA/fipa.html>.
And there is always the Canadian Access and Privacy Association,
over 10 years old, a collection of government administrators (although
anyone can pay $25 a year to join) -- so there is built-in bias
For all of its importance, there is not really a lot of E-mail
discussion about FOI, not in Canada nor in the United States. There
is a low volume FOI mail group -- FOI-L (through <firstname.lastname@example.org>)
-- primarily American. There is CANCAR-L, a really low-volume list
(through <majordomo@ acs.ryerson.ca>) which deals with Canadian
issues. Canada's Coalition for Public Information has a mail group
-- CO_PUB_INFO (through <maiserv@fis. utoronto.ca>), with
material posted by the CPI <email@example.com>. GOVINFO is a list
for information about what the government is saying about itself,
what it is publishing, new legislation about government: anything
that has information about government. You can subscribe through
<firstname.lastname@example.org>. There is also the Canadian Association
for Journalists' mail discussion group (caj-list), through <email@example.com>
but there is little discussion about FOI/Privacy.
Most of the discussion activity seems to be on UseNet, through
<alt.privacy> or <comp.society.privacy> where the bulk
of the posting are on "privacy", and not freedom of information
Many Canadian, American and International Web sites can be accessed through my CarCarr Page <http://www.ryerson.ca/~dtudor/carcarr.htm> or through Julian Sher's JournalismNet <http://www.journalismnet.com/carfoi.htm>.
Here are the more important Canadian sites, ones which have proven
to be extremely useful. Remember to follow through on all appropriate
and relevant links...
The federal Access to Information Act and the Information Commissioner
is at <http://infoweb.magi.com/~accessca/oic.html#1>.
The Privacy Commissioner of Canada is at <http://www.privcom.gc.ca>.
The InfoSource catalogue, which allegedly lists all the government
files, is at <http://www.cio-dpi.gc.ca/ip/infosource/Info-Srce-Menu_e.html>.
Canadian Access and Privacy Association at <http://www.capa.ca>.
Jim Bronskill's Access to Information Page <http://members.tripod.com/
~Bronskill/>, as well as the Queen's University Study at <http://qsilver.
The Access to Justice Network sponsors an FOI resources page; you
can get it at <http://www.acjnet.org/resource/freeinfo.html>.
The Canadian Association for Journalists has their material at <http://www.eagle.ca/caj/foi.html>, in conjunction with joint submissions with Canadian
Jounralists for Free Expression (formerly called the Canadian Committee
for the Protection of Journalists).
For New Brunswick, <http://www.gov.nb.ca/legis/busi/priv/privev.htm>
For Nova Scotia, <http://www.gov.ns.ca/just/foi/foipop.htm>
and their NovaSource <http://www.gov.ns.ca/govt/foi>.
In Quebec, <http://www.assnat.qc.ca/fra/publications/rqcai/Sunset1.html>
and <http://www.cai.gouv.qc.ca> should suffice.
In Ontario, <http://www.ipc.on.ca> is the Office; the Management
Board Secretariat's Corporate Freedom of Information and Privacy
Office is <http://www.gov.on.ca/MBS/english/fip/>.
Manitoba -- <http://www.gov.mb.ca/chc/archives/intro.html>
for a guide, or the Manitoba Association for Access and Privacy
Saskatchewan -- <http://www.gov.sk.ca/spmc/phone/phoOf6r.htm>.
Alberta -- <http://www.gov.ab.ca/foip/>.
British Columbia -- <http://www.oipcbc.org> for the Office;
Yukon -- <http://www.yukoncollege.yk.ca/archives/yarch.html>.
Electronic Frontier Canada <http://www.efc.ca>
The US Office of Information and Privacy, which implements FOIA
compliance, is at <http://www.usdoj.gov/oip/oip.html>.
FACTNet explores privacy issues at <http://www.factnet.org/res.html>.
The Internet Privacy Coalition is at <http://www.privacy.org/ipc/>,
while the Electronic Privacy Information Center is at <http://epic.org>.
The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press is at <http://
The National FOI Coalition, along with links to all the US states,
is at <http://www.reporters.net/nfoic/web/>.
The Society of Professional Journalists maintain Web pages for
US FOI issues at <http://spj.org/foia/>.
The Electronic Freedom Frontier will give reporters help with the
FOI act at <http://www.eff.org/pub/Activism/FOIA>.
Quill Magazine's FOI site is <http://www.walston1.com/foia/>.
TRAC helps reporters find and analyze data about federal law enforcement
agencies at <http://trac.syr.edu>.
The University of Florida has a FOI brochure at <http://www.jou.ufl.edu/
brecher/brochure.htm>, while the University of Missouri chimes
in with its "Guide to FOI" at <http://www.missouri.edu/~foiwww/laws.html>.
The master index to most American FOI Web sites is through Professor Barbara C. Fought's "List of FOI Resources" <http://web.syr.edu/~bcfought/foires.html>.
The UK Data Protection Registrar is at <http://www. open.gov.uk/dpr/dprhome.htm>,
and the Campaign for Freedom of Information at <http://www.cfoi.org.uk>.
The UK Freedom of Information Consultations is at <http://foi.democracy.org.uk>.
More FOI/ATIA/Privacy material next time...
Dean Tudor is Sources Informatics Consultant and a professor of Journalism and Information Science at Ryerson University. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Published in Sources, Number 44, Summer 1999.