Bringing Information Rights into the 21st Century

In response to the desparately outdated nature of Canada's now 30 year old Access to Information Act, the Office of the Information Commissioner of Canada has established an Open Dialogue Conusultation on the need to modernize ATI. Once a global leader in thoughtful information policy, Canada has lagged behind its peers, including its provincial counterparts, who have enacted more sophisticated, modern and effective access to information regimes.

CIPPIC participated in this the OIC's consultation, calling for the Access to Information Act to be modernized. More individuals should have the right to file requests and more governmental organizations should be subject to disclosure (including private bodies carrying out governmental objectives). Barriers like filing fees should be reduced, while "digital-first" approaches to providing ATI responses should be adopted to defray operational costs. Importantly, exceptions should be narrowed and focused. Too often are exceptions relied upon to obscure information that Canadians have a right to know. In addition, the onus must be placed on state entities to prove, in every instance, that relying on an exception to obscure information is in the public interest and will prevent harm that would result if the specific information was released. As there is a need for oversight in this area, CIPPIC also calls for the ATIA to grant greater powers to the Information Commissioner, including the right to hold departments accountable for egregious non-compliance or refusal of requests.

More generally, the right to information needs to be conceived more broadly than is reflected in the current ATIA. It is an individual right -- a component of the right to receive and impart information -- but needs to be exercised more poractively if it is to be achieve its true purpose within the context of a democratic and technologically innovative society. While the current ATIA focuses on information responses to individual requests, it should obligate periodic and proactive disclosure of important public information. This proactive publication obligation should extend to important data sets in the government's control, so that downstream innovators, researchers and inividual Canadians can fully benefit from data held and generated by their government.

Government-held information is a national resource, generated by public officials in the course of carrying out their public mandates and, ultimately, paid for by public funds. The outdated nature of Canada's ATI regime has become a tangible obstacle to the ability of Canadians to fully benefit from this resource. Given Canada's commitment to Open Government and participation in the Open Government Partnership, it is now time to bring our right-to-information system forward into the twenty-first century.