| About this year’s Information Summit
A Time of Decision for Freedom of Information and Privacy
It’s a critical time for FOI and privacy rights in BC, with some game-changing recommendations for changes to the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act on the table.
A Special Committee of the Legislature just completed the third review of the FOIPP Act and delivered its final report to the Legislature on May 31.
The BC Information Summit will throw a spotlight on the issues and answers, problems and solutions that produced the Special Committee’s 35 recommendations.
THE TRANSPARENCY TURNAROUND
Government critics describe the current situation in BC as a radical inversion of the Legislature’s original intent for FOI and privacy rights.
When the government passed the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act in 1992, it declared it would create a “culture of openness” with limited and narrow exceptions to the public’s rights of access to information.
On the privacy side, government imposed strict limits on its own ability to access, use and disclose personal information.
FOI and privacy advocates say that, over the past ten years, not only has the will to transparency deteriorated – its focus is being turned onto the citizens instead of government.
Access to public information has never been so fraught with barriers, while individual privacy is threatened as never before due to current government plans to collect, share and disclose personal information on an unprecedented scale.
Government’s motto could be “More privacy for us...less privacy for you.”
FREEDOM OF INFORMATION
Stephen Hume of the Vancouver Sun recently described the public’s ‘right to know’ under BC’s FOIPP Act as ‘battered and eviscerated’.
This assault happened under both NDP and Liberal administrations. But amendments to the FOI act since 2001, added to mounting administrative barriers, have made the process slower, more expensive and far less productive than ever before.
The FOIPP Act requires government to "make every reasonable effort to assist FOI applicants and to respond openly, accurately, completely and without delay." Applicants complain that that this ‘duty to assist’ is violated routinely and that an entrenched “culture of denial” has evolved toward access requests. And contrary to recent government statements, complaints from requesters suggest that a recent reorganization and centralization of the management of FOI requests has only made things worse for so-called "sensitive" requests.
The Summit will examine 19 recommendations the Special Committee made to improve access to information.
According to Canada’s Supreme Court, “…it has long been recognized that [the] freedom not to be compelled to share our confidences with others is the very hallmark of a free and democratic society.” 1
The Court also stated that our Charter of Rights and Freedoms protects “…a biographical core of personal information which individuals in a free and democratic society would wish to maintain and control from dissemination to the state.” 2
But how is this constitutional protection made real when citizens transact with their governments more than ever before, and governments collect unprecedented amounts of information about us?
The answer is, by severely limiting the amount of personal information governments collect and the ways in which they are allowed to combine, use and share it.
In BC, these limits are laid out in our FOIPP Act.
During the recent review of the FOIPP Act, privacy advocates were shocked when government officials appeared before the Special Committee to present their submission.
If implemented, the government's recommendations would revolutionize the way it collects, uses and shares personal information, would require radical changes to the privacy part of the FOIPP Act, and would be unprecedented in Canada. To put it simply, privacy protection as currently understood by the Supreme Court, privacy advocates and current privacy legislation would no longer exist.
As BC government officials see it, “The nature and way government does its work and delivers programs and services to citizens has changed significantly over the past 15 years.” Their proposed remake of the FOIPP Act would liberate the State from obsolete legal restrictions that “…prevent integrated and innovative new programs or service delivery models from being implemented” and “… prevent the sharing of information among a range of partners in the delivery of a common or integrated program or to deliver service or programs for a common purpose benefiting the citizen.”
Evidently the “obsolete legal restrictions” that are getting in the way of the effective delivery of government services are our privacy laws, and eliminating our legal privacy protections is the solution.
The Special Committee listened to both ‘sides’ of the privacy debate and made 10 recommendations affecting privacy protection. Some of these agreed with the government’s appeal to limit privacy rights. The next steps are up to government – and possibly, to the courts.
These are the issues that will be spotlighted and debated at the 2010 BC Information Summit.
1 R. v. Mills (2000), 180 D.L.R. 1 at 46.
2 R. v. Plant, S.C.J. No. 97 (Q.L.), para. 19.