Teresa Scassa - Blog

Displaying items by tag: right to know

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are not enacted through a process of legislative debate, they are not expressed in laws that would have to be formally repealed or amended in order to be altered, there are no enforcement or compliance mechanisms, and they remain subject to change at the whim of the government in power.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.

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