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Dean's Digital World

Whatever Happened to Freedom of Information?

By Dean Tudor

Dean Tudor

Understatement: there is growing evidence that Freedom of Information/Privacy legislation in Canada is definitely not working as well as it was intended. Indeed, it appears to be a negative drag on obtaining previously-available government data. Can it be possible that we are actually moving backwards??

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. Paranoia, anyone?

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 of...

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 at <http://www.capa.ca>.

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 <listserv@listserv.syr.edu>) -- 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 <cpi@web.net>. 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 <majordomo@usask.ca>. There is also the Canadian Association for Journalists' mail discussion group (caj-list), through <majordomo@eagle.ca> 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 issues.

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. queensu.ca/~foi>.

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> and <http://www.gov.nb.ca/edt/infohigh/privacy/>.

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 at <http://www.maap.mb.ca/>.

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; <http://www. ista.gov.bc.ca/agency/IMCS/FOIPP/FOIPP.html> for legislation.

Yukon -- <http://www.yukoncollege.yk.ca/archives/yarch.html>.

Electronic Frontier Canada <http://www.efc.ca>

And here are some of the more valuable American Web sites which, of course, describe and discuss largely American federal and state issues:

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:// www.rcfp.org/rcfp/>.

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>.

For the United Kingdom, try the Cabinet Office <http://www.open.gov.uk/ m-of-g/foihome.htm>.

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>.

Stuff about Australia can be found through Australia's Public Policy Assessment Society <http://www.peg.apc.org/~polsoc/ppas-foi.htm>, and the Privacy Commissioner at <http://www.privacy.gov.au>.

New Zealand's Privacy Commissioner is at <http://www.privacy.org.nz>.

The Irish Freedom of Information Act is at <http://www.irlgov.ie/finance/free1.htm>

There is a Green Paper on Public Sector Information in the Information Society, done for the European Union at <http://www.echo.lu/info2000/en/publicsector/ gp-index.html>. The Citizen's Guide to Access to EU Commission Documents is <http://europa.eu.int/comm/sg/citguide/en/citgu.htm>, while the Swiss Federal Data Protection Commissioner is at <> (even the Web sites in Switzerland are numbered!)

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 dtudor@acs.ryerson.ca.

Published in Sources, Number 44, Summer 1999.

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