The argument for human rights is based upon protection for individuals against one-sided, deceitful, inefficient, oppressive, arbitrary, cowardly, and bullying government. They are the rights that are necessary for our individual integrity, for our acceptance by the state and civil society as full members of that community, of our right to belong … We are not treated as full members when government does not provide us with information about the effect of [its] decisions, the outcomes of such decisions, or the use of resources that made the exercise of power possible.
…the New Zealand FOI regime probably fares the best, given its progressive openness and high level of political and official support, sustained by a wider pluralistic culture. The UK follows New Zealand, with reasonably high rates of disclosure, a strong Information Commissioner, single use of the veto, and some explicit political support. Third is Ireland and fourth Australia, both of which, despite high levels of use and disclosure, suffer from a high level of appeals, a lack of political support and consequent restrictive reform. Canada comes last as it has continually suffered from a combination of low use, low political support and a weak Information Commissioner since its inception.
The importance of access to information is clearer when the right to freedom of expression is considered more narrowly. Suppose that our concern is with expression on a specific subject: for example, about government’s effectiveness in executing a policy. In some cases, government agencies may be informational monopolists: that is, they may have exclusive control over critical information required for intelligence discussion of the policy. If no right of access is recognized, the right to free expression is hollowed out. Citizens will have the right to say what they think, but what they think will not count for much, precisely because it is known to be grossly uninformed. A more sensible approach would be to treat government monopolists just as we treat private media monopolists, by curbing their monopoly power so that we may promote free expression.
Arguments about the right to information should be resolved by reference to its role in protecting the fundamental interests of citizens, and not by reference to the history or structural characteristics of the institution holding the contested information.
Information watchdogs, researchers, media and others say government, institutions keeping citizens in the dark even as opportunities for transparency increase.
A good long form piece about the existing deficits in Canada’s access to information policies and laws. These laws are designed to let Canadians understand their governments and hold them to account. Unfortunately, our laws have become so atrophied that they are often more helpful for getting documents of some (routinely minor) historical import instead of getting documents that can meaningfully enable citizens to be active in their democracies.
Some real gems in that post. Highly recommended if you want to understand why researchers/journalists complain vociferously about the hell of FOIA/ATIP laws.
Via The Tyee:
Last September I filed FOIs that got me blacklisted for a time, depriving voters of facts they deserve.
You should read Bob’s article in case you’re curious about why the press, academics, and active citizens laugh at the ‘transparency’ into government operations made possible by access to information, or freedom of information and access, laws.
I would note: one of my colleagues has had a federal access request open for seven years at this point. Our work on license place recognition equipment, at the federal level, has been open almost two years, with no end in sight. There have been repeated ‘inappropriate’ (read: illegal, except it’s not illegal if the police do it, right?) closures of our file, and personal involvement by the federal information commissioner.
ATIP and FOI laws are a joke, and a bad ones at that.
Attempts to strike a deal on pandas have been floated for more than a decade, but only began to progress quickly when Prime Minister Harper personally raised the matter with Wu Bangguo, Chairman of the National People’s Congress, in Beijing in December 2009, and former Minister Prentice signed a letter of support on behalf of the Government of Canada.
Hey so remember how ridiculous it seemed when Flaherty was calling up banks and haranguing them about mortgage rates? Turns out he’s got nothing on Harper and Prentice who called up the Chinese government and asked for pandas. And then the government tried to artfully redact the correspondence when the media asked for copies, in order to maximize the political impact of the pandas. but now the Information Commissioner has ruled that they can’t do that, so we get the whole story of what happened.
Anyway we’re now paying the Chinese government tens of millions of dollars and giving them photo ops with high-ranking Canadian elected officials for the privilege of taking care of some of their pandas for a couple years. Apologies to all that Canadian wildlife that isn’t getting protection due to chronic underfunding at Environment Canada, but you know how it is.
I don’t have the time to do this – I just looked at a few, and got sick – but really: read the redacted/non-redacted documents against one another. Then, have open Canada’s Access to Information Act and see how various sections of the act are used to redact elements of the document.
And then get upset at how redaction-happy the government is, and how they justify the initial round of redactions. Also: realize what a big deal that so much goes through Cabinet and Ministers these days: It gives wide berth to using S. 21 of the Act, which often limits information associated with senior members of government (effectively) communicating with one another, or being mentioned as having communicated with one another.
In January, the government filed a declaration [PDF] signed by Mark Bradley, the FOIA director of DOJ’s National Security Division, explaining what records would be responsive to EFF’s request. The descriptions of the documents are extremely basic. For instance, Bradley explains that there are 200 relevant documents dated from May 2006 to Sept. 2011 that were provided to a key House intelligence committee, and that they total 799 pages. It goes on in that fashion.
At today’s hearing in Oakland federal court, US District Judge Yvonne Gonzalez Rogers suggested that the document wasn’t going to be sufficient.
“Why can’t I have a basic categorization of what the documents are?” asked Gonzalez Rogers.
“That list itself is classified,” responded Mark Bressler, the DOJ attorney present for the hearing.
“Are you suggesting the number of pages of each document is classified?” asked the judge. “What’s been provided is: ‘200 documents consisting of 799 pages.’ That doesn’t tell me anything. It doesn’t tell the public anything. It was never explained to me how something as basic as a list with page numbers could, in any way, shape, or form, be contrary to the interests of the government.”
“Mr. Bradley has sworn, under penalty of perjury, that to say more would tend to reveal classified information,” said Bressler. “A wealth of information is available for in camera review.” Information like page numbers and timing of documents “may be put together by targets of investigation, or adversaries of the United States,” he said.
The heights of absurdity that the American government reaches concerning the non-revelation of government documents, seemingly on a weekly basis, continues to swell.
The issue here is that data reduced to paper form loses much of its usefulness. The effect is to take power away from the recipient of the data (and by extension in this case from you as a citizen) and conserve it in a government institution as much as possible. Unless the user is bloody-minded enough to re-enter it manually, which of course is only possible at a certain scale.