Teresa Scassa - Blog

A recent court decision (Assn. for Reformed Political Action Canada v. Ontario) raises some interesting questions about the relationship between the Charter right to freedom of expression and access to information rights.

On June 9, 2017, Justice Labrosse of the Ontario Superior Court of Justice ruled that a statutory exemption to Ontario’s Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act (FIPPA) violated s. 2(b) of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, and could not be justified under s. 1. He issued a suspended declaration of invalidity, giving the province 12 months to repair the offending legislation.

Like other access to information regimes in Canada, Ontario’s FIPPA sets a default rule that citizens have a right of access to information in the hands of government and its agencies and departments. This default rule is subject to a number of exceptions that allow government institutions to refuse to disclose information that would, among other things, violate solicitor client privilege, reveal third party confidential commercial information, or adversely impact privacy rights. When a government institution refuses to release all or some of the requested information on one of these statutory grounds, the requesting party can complain to the Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner (OIPC), which is authorized to resolve such disputes. That, in a nutshell, is the regime established under FIPPA.

In this case, the applicants challenged a provision of FIPPA that was added to the statute in 2012. Section 65(5.7) provides that “This Act does not apply to records relating to the provision of abortion services.” The Applicants argued that this exception violated their right to freedom of expression under s. 2(b) of the Charter by limiting their right of access to information. In a 2010 decision, the Supreme Court of Canada held that there was no constitutional right of access to information; rather, access was a “derivative” right related to the freedom of expression. A denial of access to information could violate the freedom of expression where access “is a necessary precondition of meaningful expression on the functioning of government.” (at para 30) Justice Labrosse’s decision therefore turns on a conclusion that the denial of access to the statistical data at issue in this case prevents “meaningful expression on the functioning of government.” In this case, Justice Labrosse characterizes the information currently available as “less than 50% of some of the statistical information on a matter of important public interest.”(at para 6).

To be clear, the effect of s. 65(5.7) is not to prohibit the disclosure of information relating to the provision of abortion services. Rather, it simply removes decisions about the disclosure of such information from the statutory scheme. The Ontario government argued that freedom of expression rights were not affected by s. 65(5.7) because hospitals and/or the government could still release such information outside of the statutory scheme. Indeed, the government of Ontario had disclosed statistical information about abortion services to the applicant, and had even argued that because this information had been provided, the application was moot.

Prior to 2012, requests for data relating to the provision of abortion services could be made to government departments or agencies that were in possession of such data. For example, the Ministry of Health would have data about the number of abortions billed to OHIP, and those data could be sought through an access to information request. In responding to requests, the department or agency would ensure that the release of data was not subject to any of the exceptions in the legislation. Any disputes would be dealt with by the OIPC. In 2012, FIPPA was amended so as to include hospitals under the legislative scheme. This meant that the public would be able to make freedom of information requests to hospitals for data about their services. It was at this time that the legislation was amended to add s. 65(5.7). Justice Labrosse noted that the government’s justification for the addition of this exception was “to address the concern that disclosure of records relating to the provision of abortion services could pose risks to the safety and security of [hospital] patients, health care providers and other staff.” (at para 59). He characterized this as a pressing and substantial objective. He expressed skepticism, however, about the government’s stated secondary objective which was to “allow hospitals to decide if they wish to voluntarily disclose records relating to the provision of abortion services.” (at para 59). He noted that there was no policy framework put in place for such disclosures, and that no voluntary disclosures had ever been made.

Justice Labrosse essentially found that the exemption of the application of FIPPA to information about abortion services, which, as argued by the government, leaves hospitals and other government bodies free to disclose this information outside the FIPPA scheme, violates the freedom of expression. It is therefore the failure to ensure a framework for access to information, with all of its balancing exceptions and limitations that presents the constitutional problem. In rejecting the sufficiency of assurances by government that information can be provided outside of FIPPA on a voluntary basis, he noted that “Ontario has not pointed to any policy or legislative provision which would allow interested parties to rely on voluntary disclosure by Ontario.” (at para 40)

Justice Labrosse also rejected Ontario’s claims that Charter rights were not affected since statistical data was already available from other sources such as the Canadian Institutes for Health Information (CIHI), billing information voluntarily disclosed by the government, and statistical information available in some scholarly research. The government argued that this information was sufficient to allow for an informed public debate. In his view, significant discrepancies between the government data and the CIHI data meant that the CIHI data was not an adequate substitute. He also added that “requiring interested parties to project forward from dated statistical information published in journals” (at para 42) was also not sufficient to allow for meaningful public discussion.

Although Justice Labrosse accepted that the government had a pressing and substantial concern in protecting the safety and security of patients and health care providers, he found that the s. 65(5.7) went too far. He noted that the exception “includes no criteria to allow for disclosure of records which do not impact the objective of protecting the privacy and safety of patients seeking abortion services” (at para 66). The suspended declaration of invalidity means that the government now has 12 months in which to try to craft an exception that better balances their objectives with the public right of access to information.

It is worth comparing the provision struck down in this case with the new exemption in FIPPA for information relating to medically assisted dying. Medically assisted dying is also controversial and the government was clearly concerned about possible privacy and security implications for individuals and institutions. Yet the solution they crafted is much narrower than the broad exemption for information relating to abortion services. A new section 65(11) provides that: “This Act does not apply to identifying information in a record relating to medical assistance in dying.” This exception is only with respect to “identifying information”, rather than with respect to “records” more generally. Section 65(12) defines “identifying information as information “(a) that relates to medical assistance in dying, and (b) that identifies an individual or facility, or for which it is reasonably foreseeable in the circumstances that it could be utilized, either alone or with other information, to identify an individual or facility”. This provision may well serve as a model for the government as it crafts a new exception to replace s. 65(5.7).

 

 

Published in Privacy

A recent Alberta Provincial Court decision raised interesting issues about access to law in the internet and open government era. The case involved a prosecution for alleged violations of the Safety Codes Act for non-compliance with the Alberta Fire Code (AFC). The accused, Mr. Khan, was ultimately acquitted of all counts – the alleged breaches of the AFC were related to either an improper conversion of his property into a rooming house or the improper addition of a secondary suite. The court ultimately found that it had not been established that he had done either of these things.

The access to law issues arose because Mr. Khan, in his defence, raised a number of arguments regarding the relative inaccessibility of the Alberta Fire Code (AFC), and thus his inability to know what rules applied to his actions. In particular, he argued that the AFC was insufficiently published and distributed such that it would be a violation of section 7 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms to find people bound by its provisions. He also argued that the defence of “Invincible Mistake of Law” applied to him since the AFC cannot be sufficiently known or followed because of the defects in its publication.

The Alberta Fire Code is one of those sets of rules that occupy a rather odd conceptual space. It sets out binding rules that must be followed, but it is not a provincial regulation enacted by the sitting government and published through the normal channels. Instead, it is a code that is developed by (in this case) the National Research Council, through the participation of volunteer experts from relevant stakeholder groups that include government, industry and the public. Codes developed by the NRC (which include the Fire Code, the Building Code, the Plumbing Code and the Enercy Code) are then adopted by provincial and territorial governments. For example, in Alberta, it is the Fire Code Regulation under the Safety Codes Act that adopts the AFC and declares it to be in force in the province.

In the good old analog days, the difference in accessibility between laws, regulations, and codes like the AFC would have been much harder to spot. Anyone wanting to know what the Safety Codes Act or the Fire Code Regulation provided would have had to get themselves to a library that carried legal texts. They would likely have also found a copy of the AFC at the same library. Alternatively, they could have paid the Queen’s Printer for print copies of the statute and the regulation. The provincial department of municipal affairs would have been happy as well to sell them a copy of the AFC. As far as access goes, it was not wildly convenient – but there were both free and for-fee options, each requiring varying levels of effort.

By contrast, today anyone seeking a copy of a law or regulation can find these quickly, for free, and from anywhere they have internet access, either by visiting the website for the relevant legislature or by visiting the one-stop public resource that is CanLII. Mr. Khan’s arguments were all based around the fact that while the Safety Codes Act and the Fire Code Regulations are publicly available online and for free, the AFC is not. The AFC is still only available for free through a visit to a public library that has one in its collection (not all do). Alternatively, one can purchase a hard copy for $220, or pay for access through an online subscription (with a minimum fee of $40 for 10 days of access). The issue raised by Mr. Khan, therefore, was whether this type of access is good enough in the digital and open government era.

Judge Robertson acknowledged that “accessibility is a basic requirement of the law and forms an important fundamental of a justice system within a free and democratic society.”(at para 48) However, he found that the manner of publication of the AFC did not offend the principles of fundamental justice. He noted that the Safety Codes Act and Alberta Fire Regulation are widely available free of charge, and provide public notice of the application of the AFC. The AFC itself is available either through public libraries or by paying for access. He rejected the argument that the fees for access violated the Charter, noting that the fees charged were “diverted back to the continued maintenance and updating of the AFC, from which all citizens benefit.” (at para 64) Judge Robertson also noted that no evidence had been led to show that the cost of access would be prohibitive to “a significant percentage of homeowners” (at para 70). Further, he noted that “by the very nature of what it controls, the Fire Code is concerned with those who own capital in the form of real property. These individuals are sufficiently well-off to contemplate renovation of that property. Moreover, the purpose of such renovation would be to gain additional revenue from the use of the property as a multi dwelling unit or rooming house.”(at para 72) He found that in such circumstances, the modest cost of purchasing access to the AFC was unlikely to cause hardship.

Taking into account the fact that charges would only arise where there is non-compliance with the AFC, Judge Robertson also showed little sympathy for any defendant who had not gone through the permitting and inspection process required for renovations and who then argued that the AFC was not freely available. He noted that “Speaking generally, an individual cannot complain about the illegitimacy of secret state laws, regulations and Safety Codes, while at the same time, trying to hide unauthorized renovations or increased use of a property from the state.” (at para 75)

Perhaps most importantly from an open government perspective, Judge Robertson rejected the existence of any legal principle or case law mandating the state to “provide hard copy documents of its laws to all citizens absolutely free of charge.” (at para 76). He noted that obtaining hard copies of laws has always come with a fee; nothing has changed in this regard, even where there is also a free online alternative. As a result, there was no violation of s. 7 of the Charter.

Finally, Judge Robertson ruled that the defence of invincible mistake of law was not available. He noted that the AFC was not a secret document, was available to the public in different ways, and could be accessed both for free at some public libraries as well as at reasonable cost from the government. He noted that both the public permit system and a free inspection service provided by the Calgary Fire Department supported citizens in complying with the provisions of the Code.

Essentially, Judge Robertson finds that the current situation falls within what is constitutionally acceptable for access to laws. This does not mean, however, that accessibility could not or should not be improved. The discussion of the accessibility of the AFC and the fees charged for access was framed by a consideration of the laborious process for drafting and regularly updating safety codes such as the AFC through complex multi-stakeholder processes. While it is understandable that cost-recovery might be an objective of the publication arrangements, and while it is arguable the main market for the AFC will be those engaged in business and thus well-placed to pay the fees, the open government movement has generally pushed back against cost-recovery for data and documents regardless of the time and resources needed to prepare and publish them. Cost-recovery is only one policy factor to consider in a debate or discussion about openness. Other considerations, such as transparency and accessibility could outweigh its importance.

Judge Robertson also noted that the process of co-creation leaves copyright in the AFC shared between the federal and provincial Crowns. This means that the agreement of both levels of government is necessary for the publication and dissemination of the AFC. In other words, the decision to make such a document freely and openly available online is more complicated than it would be if only a single level of government is involved. It is worth noting that the often problematic role played by Crown copyright is the subject of a recent petition by Amanda Wakaruk, who advocates for a reform of Crown copyright when it comes to the publication of government documents. Wakaruk’s petition calls for government documents to be free of copyright restrictions once they are made public.

 

Published in Copyright Law
Monday, 19 December 2016 08:52

Open licensing of real time data

Municipalities are under growing pressure to become “smart”. In other words, they will reap the benefits of sophisticated data analytics carried out on more and better data collected via sensors embedded throughout the urban environment. As municipalities embrace smart cities technology, a growing number of the new sensors will capture data in real time. Municipalities are also increasingly making their data open to developers and civil society alike. If municipal governments decide to make real-time data available as open data, what should an open real-time data license look like? This is a question Alexandra Diebel and I explore in a new paper just published in the Journal of e-Democracy.

Our paper looks at how ten North American public transit authorities (6 in the U.S. and 4 in Canada) currently make real-time GPS public transit data available as open data. We examine the licenses used by these municipalities both for static transit data (timetables, route data) and for real-time GPS data (for example data about where transit vehicles are along their routes in real-time). Our research reveals differences in how these types of data are licensed, even when both types of data are referred to as “open” data.

There is no complete consensus on the essential characteristics of open data. Nevertheless, most definitions require that to be open, data must be: (1) made available in a reusable format; (2) prepared according to certain standards; and (3) available under an open license with minimal restrictions or conditions imposed on reuse. In our paper, we focus on the third element – open licensing. To date, most of what has been written about open licensing in general and the licensing of open data in particular, has focused on the licensing of static data. Static data sets are typically downloaded through an open data portal in a one-time operation (although static data sets may still be periodically updated). By contrast, real-time data must be accessed on an ongoing basis and often at fairly short intervals such as every few seconds.

The need to access data from a host server at frequent intervals places a greater demand on the resources of the data custodian – in this case often cash-strapped municipalities or public agencies. The frequent access required may also present security challenges, as servers may be vulnerable to distributed denial-of-service attacks. In addition, where municipal governments or their agencies have negotiated with private sector companies for the hardware and software to collect and process real-time data, the contracts with those companies may require certain terms and conditions to find their way into open licenses. Each of these factors may have implications for how real-time data is made available as open data. The greater commercial value of real-time data may also motivate some public agencies to alter how they make such data available to the public.

While our paper focuses on real-time GPS public transit data, similar issues will likely arise in a variety of other contexts where ‘open’ real-time data are at issue. We consider how real-time data is licensed, and we identify additional terms and conditions that are imposed on users of ‘open’ real-time data. While some of these terms and conditions might be explained by the particular exigencies of real-time data (such as requirements to register for the API to access the data), others are more difficult to explain. Our paper concludes with some recommendations for the development of a standard for open real-time data licensing.

This paper is part of ongoing research carried out as part of Geothink, a partnership grant project funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada.

 

Note: I was invited by Canada’s Information Commissioner and the Schools of Journalism and Communication, and Public Policy and Administration at Carleton University to participate in a workshop to launch Right to Know Week 2016. This was a full afternoon workshop featuring many interesting speakers and discussions. This blog post is based on my remarks at this event.

For the last 5 years or so, governments at all levels across Canada have been embracing the open government agenda. In doing so, they have expressed, in various ways, new commitments to open data, to the proactive disclosure of government information, and to new forms of citizen engagement. Given that the core goals of the open government movement are to increase government transparency and accountability in the broader public interest, these developments are positive ones.

There is a risk, however, that public commitments to open government have become a bit of a ‘feel good’ thing for governments. After all, what government doesn’t want to publicly commit to being open, transparent and accountable? As a result, it is important to look behind the rhetoric and to examine the nature of the commitments made to open government in Canada and to question how meaningful and enduring they really are.

For the most part, commitments to open government in Canada have been manifested in declarations, policy documents, and directives. These documents express government policy and provide direction to government actors and institutions. Yet they are “soft law” at best. They are not enacted through a process of legislative debate, they are not expressed in laws that would have to be formally repealed or amended in order to be altered, there are no enforcement or compliance mechanisms, and they remain subject to change at the whim of the government in power. Directives and policies, of course, can provide rapid and responsive mechanisms for operationalizing changes in government direction, and so I am not criticizing decisions to set open government in motion through these various means. But I am suggesting that a longer term commitment to open government might require some of these measures to be expressed in and supported by legislation in order to become properly entrenched.

For example, much effort has been invested by the federal government in creating an open licence to facilitate reuse of government data and information. After a slow and sometimes painful process, we now have a pretty good open government licence. It is based on the UK OGL and is very user friendly compared to earlier iterations. It is bilingual and it can be customized to be used by governments at all levels in Canada (for example, a version of this licence was just adopted by city of Ottawa). This reduces the burden on provincial and municipal governments contemplating open government and it creates the potential for greater legal interoperability (when users combine data or information from a number of different governments in Canada).

But let us not forget why we need an open government licence in Canada. An open licence permits the public to make use of works that are protected by copyright without the need to ask permission or pay royalties, and with the fewest restrictions on re-use as possible. Government works in Canada – and this includes court decisions, statutes, Hansard, government reports, studies, to name just a few – are protected by copyright under section 12 of the Copyright Act. One might well ask why, instead of toiling for years to come up with the current open licence, the government has not shown its commitment to openness by abolishing Crown copyright. It’s not as radical as it might sound. In the U.S., s. 105 of the Copyright Act expressly denies protection to works of the U.S. government without any obvious negative consequences. In the U.S., these works are automatically in the public domain. This legislated, hard law solution makes the commitment real and relatively permanent. Yet as things stand in Canada, government works are protected by copyright by default, and governments choose which works to make available under the open licence and which they wish to provide under more onerous licence terms. They can also decide at some point to tear up the open licence and go back to the way things used to be. Crown copyright in its current incarnation sets the default at ‘closed’.

It is true that some aspects of open government are already part of our legislative framework. We have had freedom of information/access to information laws for decades now in Canada, and these laws enshrine the principle of the public’s right to access information in the hands of government. However, the access to information laws that we have are ‘first generation’ when it comes to open government. The federal Act is currently being reviewed by Parliament, and we might see some legislative change, though how much and how significant remains to be seen. As Mary Francoli has pointed out, there wasn’t really a need for further review – the new government had plenty of material on which to take action in proposing amendments to the Act.

The many deficiencies in the Access to Information Act have been well documented. For example, in 2015 the Information Commissioner set out 85 proposed reforms to the statute to modernize and improve it. The June 2016 Report by the Standing Committee on Access to Information, Privacy and Ethics on its Review of the Access to Information Act takes up many of these proposals in its own recommendations for extensive reforms to the Act. We are now awaiting the government’s response to this report. Rather than review the many recommendations already made, I will highlight those that relate to my broader point about enshrining open government principles in legislation

The Access to Information Act as it currently stands is premised on a model of individuals asking for information from government, waiting patiently while government puts together the requested information, and then complaining to the Commissioner when too much information is redacted or withheld. Open government promises both information and data proactively, in reusable formats, and without significant restrictions on reuse. While proactive disclosure of information and open data cannot replace the access to information model (which is, itself, capable of considerable improvement), they will provide quicker, cheaper and more effective access in many areas. Yet the Access to Information Act does not currently contain any statement about proactive disclosure. Proactive disclosure – also referred to as “open by default” is not really “open by default” unless the law says it is. Until then, it is just an aspirational statement and not a legal requirement. We see a proliferation of policies and directives at all levels of government that talk about proactive disclosure, but there are not firm legal commitments to this practice, or to open data. And, although I have been focussing predominantly on the federal regime, these issues are relevant across all levels of government in Canada.

A core principle of open data is that the data sets provided by governments should be made available in open, accessible and reusable formats. Proactive disclosure of information should also be in reusable formats. Access under the conventional regime is also enhanced when the information disclosed is in formats that facilitate analysis and reuse. Yet even under the existing access model, there is no default requirement to provide requested information in open, accessible and reusable formats. It is important to remember that it is not enough just to provide ‘access’ – the nature and quality of the access provided is relevant. The format in which information is provided in a digital age can create a barrier to the processing or analysis of information once accessed.

I would like, also, to venture onto territory that is not addressed in the calls for reform to access to information laws. Another challenge that I see for open data (and open information) in Canada relates to the sources of government data. I am concerned about the lack of controls over the use of taxpayer dollars to create closed data. As we move into the big data era, governments will be increasingly tempted to source their data for decision-making from private sector suppliers rather than to generate it in-house. We are seeing this already; an example is found in recent decisions of some municipal governments to source data about urban cycling patterns from cycling app companies. There will also be instances where governments contract with the private sector to install sensors to collect data, or to process it, and then pay licence fees for access to the resulting proprietary data in the hands of the private sector companies. In these cases, the terms of the license agreements may limit public access to the data or may place significant restrictions on its reuse. This is a big issue. All the talk about open government data will not do much good if the data on which the government relies is not characterized as “government data”. It is important that governments develop transparent policies around contracts for the collection, supply or processing of data that ensure that our rights as members of the public to access and reuse this data – paid for with our tax dollars – are preserved. Even better, it might be worth seeing some principle to this effect enshrined in the law.

The federal government has just released for public comment its open government plan for 2016-2018. This is the third such plan since Canada joined the Open Government Partnership in 2012. The two previous plans were released by the Conservative government, and were called Canada’s Action Plan on Open Government 2012-2014 and Canada’s Action Plan on Open Government 2014-2016. This most recent plan is titled Canada’s New Plan on Open Government (“New Plan”). The change in title signals a change in approach.

The previous government structured its commitments around three broad themes: Open Data, Open Information and Open Dialogue. It is fair to say that it was the first of these themes that received the greatest attention. Under the Conservatives there were a number of important open data initiatives: the government developed an open data portal, an open government licence (modeled on the UK Open Government Licence), and a Directive on Open Government. It also committed to funding the Open Data Exchange (ODX) (a kind of incubator hub for open data businesses in Canada), and supported a couple of national open data hackathons. Commitments under Open Information were considerably less ambitious. While important improvements were made to online interfaces for making access to information requests, and while more information was provided about already filled ATIP requests, it is fair to say that improving substantive access to government information was not a priority. Open dialogue commitments were also relatively modest.

Canada’s “New Plan” is considerably different in style and substance from its predecessors. This plan is structured around 4 broad themes: open by default; fiscal transparency; innovation, prosperity and sustainable development; and engaging Canadians and the world. Each theme comes with a number of commitments and milestones, and each speaks to an aspirational goal for open government, better articulating why this is an initiative worth an investment of time and resources.

Perhaps because there was so great a backlash against the previous government’s perceived lack of openness, the Liberals ran on an election platform that stressed openness and transparency. The New Plan reflects many of these election commitments. As such, it is notably more ambitious than the previous two action plans. The commitments are both deeper (for example, the 2014-2016 action plan committed to a public database disclosing details of all government contracts over $10,000; the New Plan commits to revealing details of all contracts over $1), and more expansive (with the government committing to new openness initiatives not found in earlier plans).

One area where the previous government faced considerable criticism (see, for example Mary Francoli’s second review of Canada’s open government commitments) was in respect of the access to information regime. That government’s commitments under “open information” aimed to improve access to information processes without addressing substantive flaws in the outdated Access to Information Act. The new government’s promise to improve the legislation is up front in the New Plan. Its first commitment is to enhance access to information through reforms to the legislation. According to the New Plan, these include order-making powers for the Commissioner, extending the application of the Access to Information Act to the Prime Minister and his Ministers’ Offices, and mandatory 5-year reviews of the legislation. Although these amendments would be a positive step, they fall short of those recommended by the Commissioner. It will also be interesting to see whether everything on this short list comes to pass. (Order-making powers in particular are something to watch here.) The House of Commons Standing Committee on Access to Information, Privacy and Ethics has recently completed hearings on this legislation. It will be very interesting to see what actually comes of this process. As many cynics (realists?) have observed, it is much easier for opposition parties to be in favour of open and transparent government than it is for parties in power. Whether the Act gets the makeover it requires remains to be seen.

One of the interesting features of this New Plan is that many of the commitments are ones that go to supporting the enormous cultural shift that is required for a government to operate in a more open fashion. Bureaucracies develop strong cultures, often influenced by long-cherished policies and practices. Significant change often requires more than just a new policy or directive; the New Plan contains commitments for the development of clear guidelines and standards for making data and information open by default, as well as commitments to training and education within the civil service, performance metrics, and new management frameworks. While not particularly ‘exciting’, these commitments are important and they signal a desire to take the steps needed to effect a genuine cultural shift within government.

The New Plan identifies fiscal transparency as an overarching theme. It contains several commitments to improve fiscal transparency, including more extensive and granular reporting of information on departmental spending, greater transparency of budget data and of fiscal analysis, and improved openness of information around government grants and other contributions. The government also commits to creating a single portal for Canadians who wish to search for information on Canadian businesses, whether they are incorporated federally or in one of the provinces or territories.

On the theme of Innovation, Prosperity and Sustainable Development, the New Plan also reflects commitments to greater openness in relation to federal science activities (a sore point with the previous government). It also builds upon a range of commitments that were present in previous action plans, including the use of the ODX to stimulate innovation, the development of open geospatial data, the alignment of open data at all levels of government in Canada, and the implementation of the Extractive Sector Transparency Measures Act. The New Plan also makes commitments to show leadership in supporting openness and transparency around the world.

The government’s final theme is “Engaging Canadians and the World”. This is the part where the government addresses how it plans to engage civil society. It plans to disband the Advisory Panel established by the previous government (of which I was a member). While the panel constituted a broad pool of expertise on which the government could draw, it was significantly under-utilized, and clearly this government plans to try something new. They state that they will “develop and maintain a renewed mechanism for ongoing, meaningful dialogue” between the government and civil society organizations – whatever that means. Clearly, the government is still trying to come up with a format or framework that will be most effective.

The government also commits in rather vague terms to fostering citizen participation and engagement with government on open government initiatives. It would seem that the government will attempt to “enable the use of new methods for consulting and engaging Canadians”, and will provide support and resources to government departments and agencies that require assistance in doing so. The commitments in this area are inward-looking – the government seems to acknowledge that it needs to figure out how to encourage and enhance citizen engagement, but at the same time is not sure how to do so effectively.

In this respect, the New Plan offers perhaps a case in point. This is a detailed and interesting plan that covers a great deal of territory and that addresses many issues that should be of significant concern to Canadians. It was released on June 16, with a call for comments by June 30. Such a narrow window of time in which to comment on such a lengthy document does not encourage engagement or dialogue. While the time constraints may be externally driven (by virtue of OGP targets and deadlines), and while there has been consultation in the lead up to the drafting of this document, it is disappointing that the public is not given more time to engage and respond.

For those who are interested in commenting, it should be noted that the government is open to comments/feedback in different forms. Comments may be made by email, or they can be entered into a comment box at the bottom of the page where the report is found. These latter comments tend to be fairly short and, once they pass through moderation, are visible to the public.

I was at the United Nations last week for an Expert Group Meeting on Moving from commitments to results in building effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels. On February 18, 2016, I gave a presentation on balancing privacy with transparency in open government. This is a challenging issue, and one that is made even more so by digitization, information communication technologies and the big data environment.

Openness access to government information and data serve the goals of greater transparency and greater public trust in government. They are essential in fighting corruption, but they are also important in holding governments to account for their decision-making and for their spending of public funds. However, transparency must also be balanced against other considerations, including privacy. Privacy is a human right, and it protects the dignity, autonomy and integrity of individuals. Beyond this, however, the protection of privacy of personal information in the hands of governments also enhances public trust in governments and can contribute to citizen engagement.

How, then, does one balance privacy with transparency when it comes to information in the hands of government? There are no easy answers. My slides from my presentation can be found here, and these slides contain some links to some other publicly available work on this topic.

Published in Privacy
Tuesday, 09 February 2016 10:19

Evaluating Canada's Open Government Progress

Carleton University’s Mary Francoli has just released her second report on Canada’s progress towards its Open Government commitments as part of its membership in the Open Government Partnership. The report is currently open for public comment.

The report offers a detailed and thorough assessment of the commitments made by the Canadian government in its second Action Plan on Open Government and the extent to which these commitments have been met. For those interested in open government, it makes interesting reading, and it also sets out a number of recommendations for moving the open government agenda forward in Canada.

Because the report is a review of Canada’s progress on meeting its commitments, it is shaped by those commitments rather than by, for example, a list of open government priorities as identified by multiple stakeholders. Indeed, problems with stakeholder consultation and engagement are themes that run through this report. Although Francoli notes that there have been improvements over time, there is clearly still work to be done in this regard.

Francoli’s detailed review shows that progress has certainly been made in moving forward the open government agenda. She notes that “significant progress” has been made with respect to many of the government’s commitments in the second Action Plan, and that in some cases the government’s progress has exceed its commitments. Not surprisingly, however, much remains to be done. Francoli identifies a number of shortcomings flagged by stakeholders that form the basis for her recommendations.

Foremost among the shortcomings is the woeful state of Canada’s Access to Information Act. Although this legislation has been the subject of criticism and calls for reform for decades – and by a broad range of stakeholders – the previous government remained impervious to these demands. That an open government agenda could be advanced with much fanfare without tackling access to information in any substantive way should undermine confidence in Canada’s commitment to open government. Top among Francoli’s recommendations, therefore, is reform of the legislation, and she has written a separate opinion piece on this topic in the Hill Times. In this article she notes with frustration that although the new Liberal government expressed a commitment to reform the access to information regime in its election platform, that commitment is now being expressed in terms of a “review” of the legislation. Francoli justifiably questions whether we really need further review given the many studies already conducted and the ink already spilled about the deficiencies in the legislation. A commitment to meaningful reform might just require swifter action.

Other issues flagged by Francoli include what she refers to as a “data deficit” – the apparent stalling of progress in the release of open data and the lack of diversity in the available data at the federal level. The concerns over a data deficit extend to the cancellation of government-led data collection; the axing of the long-form census being perhaps the most notorious (though not the only) example of this. Although the census has been revived, Francoli notes that other cancelled studies have not. Further, Francoli cautions that the government’s web renewal strategy is having the effect of pushing departments and agencies to reduce digital content available over the web, with the resultant loss of content available to the public. This latter concern ties in as well to Francoli’s recommendation that the government develop and publicize a clear policy on the preservation of digital material.

In addition to recommendations related to these issues, Francoli also recommends that the government overhaul the Advisory Panel on Open Government. This Panel (on which I served) met only very rarely, and opportunities to provide feedback became very limited by tight time constraints imposed on the few meetings that did take place. Francoli is concerned about a disjunction between stakeholders’ perspectives on open government and those of the government, and she sees an Advisory Panel with a new mandate and a new mode of operation as being one way to ensure more open lines of communication.

There may be a common misperception that open data and proactive disclosure are inexpensive and resource-light endeavors (after all, the government is just publishing online information already gathered, right?). Yet, this is far from the case. Open data in particular is resource-intensive, and Francoli notes that the two Action Plans had identified no additional resources for open government (apart from the $3 million dollars set aside for the mysterious Open Data Exchange (ODX)). She therefore also recommends that the government commit the necessary resources to open government in future action plans.

Francoli’s report can be found here, and comments on the report can be made here. The comments are public, and it is also possible to read comments by other stakeholders and to engage in dialogue about the report. With a new government in the process of setting its open government agenda, this is an opportunity to help shape its direction.

A new paper by uOttawa Common Law student Niki Singh and myself, and published in the Journal of e-Democracy, explores the issue of how to unroll open data programs in officially bi- or multi-lingual jurisdictions. Our focus is on Canada, although similar issues may arise in other jurisdictions with more than one official language.

The issue of linguistic equality in open data initiatives is particularly important if one takes into account the civic engagement dimensions of open government as well as the potential for use of open data by civil society organizations to meet their diverse goals. To date, at least at the federal level in Canada, there has been a strong emphasis on using open data to stimulate innovation. Much less emphasis has been placed, at least at the policy level, on using open government data to promote transparency or to support the work of civil society groups. The capacity of many civil society groups in Canada to work effectively with open data is even open to question. The necessary skills and expertise to work with open data may not yet be available to all such groups. In this context, then, compliance with the letter and spirt of official language policies requires a focus not just on bilingual data and bilingual tools to access the data (although these are certainly important), it also requires support for digital and data literacy that effectively reaches the different linguistic communities.

A few years ago, Jo Bates wrote an interesting article that explored whether and to what extent open government data initiatives within a neo-liberal frame may seek to offload responsibility for the delivery of some information-based government services to the private sector. In other words, rather than have the government develop and deliver information-based services to the public, the government might make its data available as open data and let the private sector develop useful apps involving that data. Evidence of this neo-liberal approach to information policy is present in Canada. For example, the decision of the last federal government in Canada to abolish the long form census was in part justified on the (controversial) view that equivalent data could be sourced from the private sector. If open data regimes operate within this neo-liberal frame, it is important also to consider the fate of minority language communities (among others) as data-related analysis and services are offloaded to the private sector.

Using the efforts and obligations of the Canadian federal government as a case study, our paper identifies some of the challenges posed by developing and implementing an open data agenda within an officially bilingual state. We consider two main issues. The first is whether open data initiatives might be used as a means to outsource some information analysis and information services to an unregulated private sector, thus directly or indirectly avoiding obligations to provide these services in both official languages. The second is whether the Canadian government’s embrace of the innovation agenda of open data leaves minority language communities underserved and under-included in the development and use of open data. Although ultimately the evidence at this early stage is inconclusive, the questions are important ones to be asking, particularly as a new federal government takes charge of the open data agenda in Canada.

The rise of big data analytics, combined with a movement at all levels of government in Canada towards open data and the proactive disclosure of government information have created a context in which privacy interests are increasingly likely to conflict with the goals of transparency and accountability. In some cases these conflicts may be small and easily reconciled, but in other cases they may be more substantial. In addition, some means of reconciling the conflict must be found; where privacy and transparency conflict, for example, which value should prevail and under what conditions?

Conflicts between transparency and privacy have been seen recently in, for example, concerns expressed over the amount of personal information that might be found in court and tribunal decisions that are published online. Sunshine lists – lists of salaries of public employees that are over a certain amount – also raise issues. Provinces that publish such lists have tended to do so using file formats that do not lend themselves to easy digital manipulation. But of course these modest technological barriers are routinely overcome, and individual name and salary information is absorbed into the big data universe for purposes quite distinct from meeting a government’s transparency objectives. Open municipal data files may include information about specific individuals: for example, a database of all home renovation permit applications would have privacy implications for those individuals who applied for such permits. Even with names were redacted, it is easy enough to identify the owners of any homes for which renovation permits were obtained. In some cases, the level of connection may be less direct. For example, a public restaurant inspection record that cited kitchen staff at a small local restaurant for failure to wash their hands on a specific inspection date might indirectly reveal the identity of the persons who did not wash their hands, particularly if the staff of the restaurant is quite small. And, of course, in the big data context, even anonymized data, or data that is not personal information on its face, can be matched with other available data to identify specific individuals.

The point is not that the disclosure of such information must be avoided at all costs – rather, the issue is how to determine where to draw the line between privacy and transparency, and what steps might be taken to protect privacy while still ensuring transparency. No new legislative framework has been created to specifically guide the move towards open government in Canada, notwithstanding the fact that government data is fuel for the engines of big data.

In a paper that has just been published by the Alberta Law Review, my co-author Amy Conroy and I explore these issues, using a recent Supreme Court of Canada decision as a departure point for our analysis. Although the Court’s decision in Ministry of Community Safety and Correctional Services v Information and Privacy Commissioner (Ontario) (Ministry of Community Safety) does not specifically address either open data or proactive disclosure, the case nevertheless offers important insights into the gaps in both legislation and case law in this area.

In our paper we consider the challenges inherent in the release of government data and information either through pro-active disclosure or as open data. A key factor in striking the balance between transparency and privacy is the definition of personal information – information that is not personal information has no privacy implications. Another factor is, of course, the meaning given to the concept of transparency. Our paper considers how courts and adjudicators understand transparency in the face of competing claims to privacy. We challenge the simple equation of the release of information with transparency and argue that the coincidence of open government with big data requires new approaches that are informed by the developing relationship between privacy and transparency.

“Promoting Transparency While Protecting Privacy in Open Government in Canada” by Amy Conroy and Teresa Scassa is published in (2015) 53:1 Alberta Law Review 175-206. A pre-print version is available here.

Published in Privacy

A recent (though not yet in force) amendment to Canada’s Trade-marks Act will permit an unprecedented purging of trademark records in Canada. This destruction of records should be understood within the disturbing context described in a recent Maclean’s article by Anne Kingston, titled “Vanishing Canada: Why We’re All Losers in Canada’s War on Data”.

The new section 29.1 is aptly titled “Destruction of Records”. It provides that, notwithstanding the Registrar’s duty to maintain trademark data and documentation for public view, the Registrar may still destroy a broad range of documents. These can include applications for trademarks that are refused or abandoned, documents relating to trademarks that have been expunged, documents relating to any request for public notice to be given of an official mark that has been abandoned, refused or invalidated, and documents relating to objections to geographical indications that are removed from the list of geographical indications. All of these documents may be destroyed 6 years after the final action on the file.

Since 1997, the Registrar has been maintaining an electronic register of trademarks. This register is publicly accessible and searchable. However, it does not provide electronic access to the underlying documentation relating to the registrations. This information has nonetheless been available for public consultation, and is also available through access to information requests. While it is now possible to file trademark applications online, thus replacing paper with digital documents, this option has not always been available and there is still a great deal of paper floating about. All this paper obviously takes up a significant amount of space. How should the problem be addressed? One option is to begin the process of digitization; paper records can be destroyed once digital copies are made. Digital copies would also allow for a vastly improved level of access. Another option is to just chuck it all out. It is this latter option, cheap and easy, that will be implemented by the new section 29.1 of the Trade-marks Act.

Of what use are the records at issue? Trademark lawyers have argued that information about past trademark applications – including those refused by the Registrar – is often used in trademark opposition proceedings and in litigation. The International Trademark Association (INTA) opposed section 29.1 in a written submission to the Parliamentary Committee that studied the Bill that introduced this provision. INTA stated that “the downside risk of losing public access to these documents outweighs the hardships to the Canadian Intellectual Property Office associated with maintaining those records.” INTA also noted that the Canadian approach was out of line with that in the United States and in Europe. INTA argued that the destruction of paper records should only take place after electronic copies have been made. The United States, for example, has created a searchable online resource to provide access to all of its records relating to all trademark applications, registered trademarks, Madrid Protocol applications and international registrations.

In addition to the relevance of this information to trademark practitioners, the soon to be destroyed information has research value as well. Canadian trademark law is a relatively under-researched area of Canadian intellectual property law. It would be a great shame if large volumes of data disappear just as research in this area begins to mature and expand.

What might a researcher distill from these records? Here’s one example. Official marks have long been criticized for giving “public authorities” an almost unlimited power to carve out trademark space for themselves without any of the usual checks and balances put in place to manage trademark monopolies in the public interest. Many official marks for which public notice has been given by the Registrar have later been invalidated by the courts either on the basis that the “public authority” seeking public notice was not really a public authority or on the basis that they had not actually adopted or used the mark in question. Once s. 29.1 takes effect, the paper records relating to official marks that have been invalidated will disappear after 6 years. The Registrar has become more rigorous in her examination of requests for official marks (within the limits of a law totally lacking in rigour in this respect). Because there is no application process for official marks, all that appears in the register of trademark is the actual public notice in successful cases. Records relating to failed requests for public notice will soon be subject to destruction after 6 years. This means that this information will disappear entirely and without a trace. What public authorities have sought official marks that have been refused? What was the basis for the refusal to give public notice? What entities claiming to be public authorities have attempted to get trademark protection through this avenue? What might the answers to these questions tell us about a regime that is badly in need of reform? The answers to these questions will become unknowable once s. 29.1 takes effect and the wholesale destruction of records begins.

Digitization of records is expensive, time-consuming and labour intensive. But if paper records are destroyed before digitization takes place there is simply no way to recreate the information. It is lost forever. I have given only a few examples of the potential relevance of the information that is set to be destroyed once s. 29.1 comes into force. Let’s hope it never does. The concepts of open government and open data are only meaningful if there is something left to see once the doors are opened.

Published in Trademarks
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