Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Transparency means nothing without justice (Cory Doctorow - Guardian UK)

Transparency means nothing without justice

The footage of police action at last summer's Climate Camp – and the lack of response since – demonstrates the limits of a cyber-liberty dream

Cory Doctorow, Wednesday 29 April 2009 12.57 BST
Article history

An activist is arrested as others participate in a march towards Kingsnorth power station from the Camp For Climate Action 2008. Photograph: Daniel Berehulak/Getty

We cyber-liberties types are very big on government transparency – on the right to carry our cameras into every altercation with authority and to put it all online. We make the problems visible, hoping that this will solve them. Little brother watches back!

Transparency is indeed a virtue in government. Knowing what MPs and cops and regulators are up to is a vital precursor to doing something about it. That's why people in authority naturally shy away from transparency.

That's the reason for Gordon Brown's proposal to make MPs' expense accounts into a state secret, immune from Freedom of Informationrequests, and the frankly insane new law that makes it illegal to photograph a copper, a soldier, or many public buildings if these photos could be used "in preparation of an act of terror".


Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Katz renews call for transparency from Winnipeg City Councillors

Katz renews call for transparency

More spending by councillors revealed

City councillors spent $150 on a roast pig, almost $1,500 on curling tickets and almost $5,800 on pottery supplies in 2008 as part of more than $13,000 in spending on gifts and donations for ward residents or community groups.

Winnipeg's elected officials also bought cameras, a GPS unit and an iPhone for official city business last year, according to credit-card receipts obtained by the Free Press following an access-to-information request.

Most of the spending appears to conform to city regulations and all of it is subject to review by the city clerk's department.

But the fact the details of the spending have only come to light following a formal access-to-information request has led Mayor Sam Katz to renew his call for more transparency when it comes to spending decisions by city council members.

"When you don't make everything public, people get suspicious," Katz said in an interview on Monday, repeating his desire to see the city publish the complete spending records of all 16 members of council.


Ireland sees 18 per cent rise in FoI requests; 1st increase since 2005

18 per cent rise in FoI requests


Tue, Apr 28, 2009

Freedom of Information (FOI) requests to public bodies went up by 18 per cent last year, the first increase since 2005, according to the annual report of the Information Commissioner.

Much of the increase in demand for information, particularly from financial institutions, is a by-product of the economic downturn, according to the commissioner, Emily O'Reilly.

Launching her report for 2008, Ms O'Reilly said this morning that one of the by-products of the current economic crisis has been a sharp increase in public demand for transparency and accountability.

"As the public see the financial gains of the past decade slipping away there is a demand to know how the turnabout took place and how various public and private institutions behaved both during the boom and after it."


Friday, April 24, 2009

Court orders pollution data from mining made public

Court orders pollution data from mining made public


A compelling photo of toxic waste at a nickel mine.

A compelling photo of toxic waste at a nickel mine.

Photograph by: National Gallery of Canada, Edward Burtynsky

OTTAWA — A court has ordered the federal government to make public pollution data on toxic mine tailings and waste rock at 80 metal mining facilities across the country.

The Federal Court ruling was hailed Friday as a significant victory by Ecojustice, Great Lakes United and MiningWatch Canada to end secrecy about levels of lead, arsenic, mercury, cyanide and other chemicals contained in tailings and waste rock.


Seeing through expenses transparency (Heather Brooke UK)

Gordon Brown's reforms may include some much-needed changes to MPs' expenses, but they don't go far enough

Heather Brooke, Thursday 23 April 2009 18.00 BST

On Saturday Gordon Brown said he had more important things to deal with than MPs' expenses.

On Tuesday morning, there was nothing more important than MPs' expenses and their immediate reform was a top priority. What had changed in that three-day time period?

Well I'd like to think a little documentary I did for Dispatches – The Westminster Gravy Train – had something to do with his sudden about-face. This film marked the culmination of my five-year battle to chisel out of MPs' grasping hands the detailed receipts of their expense claims.

You can't hope for a better result as a campaigner than to have the prime minister announce a major policy change within 48 hours of your documentary. Is this the power of television? Was Brown watching and choking on his dinner?


Thursday, April 23, 2009

Toronto City hall's secret forum

City hall's secret forum


Apr 23, 2009 04:30 AM
Toronto city councillors are planning a full and frank discussion of the city's economic future today – behind closed doors. Councillors are apparently of the opinion that an open meeting would reduce the session's value. What nonsense.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Canadian Court ruling ignored the higher public good: 'journalists may not make public information obtained as a result of a breach of confidentiality'

Court ruling ignored the higher public good



Superior Court Judge Jean-François de Grandpré ruled last week that journalists may not make public information obtained as a result of a breach of confidentiality. The decision showed little understanding of how information sometimes reaches the public.

The ruling did not address the issue of the higher public good that should prevail in cases where a government or anyone else attempts to hide information that the public should have.


Saturday, April 18, 2009

Public secrets... the trouble with Nova Scotia's rules of silence.

the coastImage by litherland via Flickr

Public secrets
Freedom of Information law gives you the right to get government information. Good luck accessing that. Here's the trouble with Nova Scotia's rules of silence.

by Tim Bousquet

One summer day in the mid-1990s, there was an illegal Mexican immigrant working as part of a crew pruning an orchard in California. The man was lopping off tree branches while standing in a metal box of a cherry picker truck; one of the branches fell onto a high-voltage power line and the electricity arced from the power line, through the branch and onto the cherry picker. The man died instantly.
The orchard was owned by one of the largest and wealthiest landowners in the county. Through an exercise in "plausible deniability" the landowner was able to have lowly paid illegal migrants work his fields by using fly-by-night labour contractors who actually hired the illegals. That scheme also got around any need for safety training and equipment.
On the power line side of the story, the multi-billion-dollar utility that owned the line hired a multi-billion-dollar tree trimming service to clear its lines. The utility basically passed the liability onto the trimming company, but managers at the latter were rewarded for cutting costs, not trees---this particular high-voltage line was documented as "clear" even though no work had been done to it, the presumption being that the orchard workers would take care of it.
The dead fellow was completely powerless: The people he worked with were also illegals and spoke no English besides. His death was inconvenient for the most powerful entities in the state, and so it was quite literally ignored. No one in a position of authority dared question how he died, or why, or the circumstances around his death.
A few days later, I was combing through vital statistics in the county courthouse, as part of my regular duties as a reporter, and I came across the death certificate for the man who had died in the orchard. That tweaked my interest and, after some more research, I wrote an article detailing the full story.
That story in turn prompted a government investigation, a lawsuit and public outrage. It changed the way the power company clears its lines and, ideally, has made orchard owners more accountable for safety standards on their operations.
It all started with the death certificate, a public record.
I couldn't do that story here in Nova Scotia: Death certificates and other vital statistics aren't public record. They're just one of many government records that are bureaucratically ruled off limits to the public, including vital statistics, government employee salaries, physician discipline rulings, building department files and more. Other records are nominally public, but damn near impossible to actually get.
And that's a problem.

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A Victory in the Fight for Sunshine in Canada (Darce Fardy)

It's not often that advocates for open government in Canada get good news. And never, I fear, can we expect a government leader to make the kind of pledge to openness and accountability that President Obama made — except during election campaigns.
Our Right to Know Coalition of Nova Scotia is three years old. When I retired after 11 years as Nova Scotia's Freedom of Information Commissioner I gathered a small like-minded group of people together to form a Freedom of Information advocacy group, only the second in Canada. I noticed during my years as commissioner that few people in our province (and likely throughout Canada) were aware of their rights under FOI legislation and those who did seldom used it. Talk of freedom of information is not something that energizes many people.
Like too many democracies in the world Canada suffers from alarmingly low voter turnouts in our federal, provincial and municipal elections; less than 60 percent. This means that in a parliamentary system with three or more political parties competing for power, a party can form a government with the expressed support of only 30 or 40 percent of the electorate. Not much of a mandate from the people.


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Darce Fardy Invited to Participate in the Americas Regional Conference on the Right of Access to Information in Lima, Peru

WASHINGTON - JANUARY 20:  Former president Jim...Image by Getty Images via Daylife

The Right to Know Coalition of Nova Scotia has been recognized by the Carter Center for its work promoting open and accountable government. The Carter Center is committed to advancing human rights and alleviating unnecessary human suffering. around the world. It was founded by the former President of the United states, Jimmy Carter and his wife Rosylin after they left the White House.

Darce Fardy has been invited to participate in "Americas Regional Conference on the Right of Access to Information" in Lima, Peru from April 27 to April 30, 2009. Delegates from countries around the world will be attending. President Carter will be taking part in the discussions.

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Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Huge increase in local FOI requests (UK)

Huge increase in FOI requests

COUNCIL chiefs are warning the huge rise in freedom of information requests over the last 18 months could lead to "resource implications".

In the act's first year, 2005, only 135 requests were posted with Wirral Council.

But by the end of 2008, and the release of the controversial Strategic Asset Review (SAR), that number had almost quadrupled to 538.


Standard electronic processing could ease US FOIA backlog

Standard electronic processing could ease FOIA backlog


A lack of standard electronic processing systems is contributing to a backlog of Freedom of Information Act requests at federal agencies, according to a report released on Monday by a coalition of media groups.

Some agencies have proprietary software to process and respond to requests for public documents, "but each is on its own, which is a problem," said Rick Blum, coordinator for the Sunshine in Government Initiative, which published the report. He said Mexico successfully implemented a governmentwide electronic processing system that could serve as an example.

The report comes as agencies are facing a pileup of inquiries and dwindling staffs. In 2008, 25 federal agencies amassed a backlog of 130,359 cases, representing 33 percent of the 398,607 FOIA requests processed that year, the report stated. The backlog was greater in 2007 (at 149,890 requests), but it remained steady when viewed as a percentage of inquiries processed. Meanwhile, FOIA staff fell from 3,438 in 2007 to 2,653 in 2008.


US FOI Advocate Judith Krug Dies

APRIL 14, 2009

FOI Advocate Judith Krug Dies

One of the most tenacious fighters for freedom of information and the right to know -- and to read -- has died. Judith Krug, who headed the American Library Association's Office of Intellectual Freedom for more than 40 years, died in Illinois on Saturday at age 69. Her constant pressure to keep libraries and minds free from censorship was felt even at the Supreme Court level, helping lead to the high court's 1997 decision declaring the Internet as a medium that deserves the widest range of First Amendment protection. An obituary of Krug appears here. 

D.C.  media lawyers and First Amendment advocates who worked with her over the years today mourned her passing.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Downing Street disguise names of people they rubbish in e-mails

Downing Street disguise names of people they rubbish in e-mails

...some things I've picked up over the years.

1. Downing Street officials routinely disguise the names of people they are writing about in the belief that this may hinder attempts to get hold of them under FOI or secure under data protection legislation. So e-mails referring to me would refer to S*m C****s or a variation of this for instance. Who knows whether this does make any difference under the FOI law. It could do.

2. There are two linked e-mail systems. There's the secure system (where the address has .gsi in it) and then there is an unsecure system (without gsi in the address). Blackberries only have access to unsecure e-mails, although desktops inside number 10 have access to both. A lot of the more agressive stuff is done on blackberries.

3. The FOI procedure is pretty lax inside Number 10. When a request comes in, officials are asked to surrender any e-mails that might be relevant to the requester. I've been told in the past of occassions where officials simply to delete the more personally embarrassing ones. But, as far as I'm aware, there's no independent auditor inside the Cabinet Office or Number 10 who double checks that officials surrender everything they are legally required to. And, despite an FOI tribunal ruling to the contrary, deleted e-mails are considered out of bounds.


Thursday, April 09, 2009

Rolling back secrecy on court files (Dean Jobb)

Rolling back secrecy on court files
April 09, 2009


"The administration of justice thrives on exposure to light – and withers under a cloud of secrecy," Justice Morris Fish of the Supreme Court of Canada wrote in a 2005 ruling upholding the media's Charter-guaranteed right to gather and report the news.

Yet since 2006, clerks at courthouses across Ontario have cast a "cloud of secrecy" over sexual assaults, extortions and a host of other serious crimes. They refused to allow journalists to see the court file – documents clearly on the public record – if there was a ban on publishing information that could identity the victim or a witness.

The reason? A policy of the provincial Ministry of the Attorney General that deemed such files "not accessible to the public without judicial direction."

A reporter or citizen seeking access, the policy stated, "must make an application to the court" – an expensive and time-consuming process.

That was the practice until last week, when Attorney General Chris Bentley lifted the restriction and acknowledged "the administration of justice is strengthened by being open."


Battling FOI: Hartford Mayor's Secrecy Is Expensive

Battling FOI: Hartford Mayor's Secrecy Is Expensive

If only Hartford Mayor Eddie Perez weren't so disdainful of the public's right to know.

Since last year, the city has paid more than $125,000 to outside counsel to defend against complaints that it has violated the Freedom of Information Act — basically, that it tried to keep secret information that should be available to the public, such as records relating to the state's investigation into alleged corruption at city hall.


Monday, April 06, 2009

BC Privacy Commissioner asked to review FOI requests

BC Privacy Commissioner asked to review FOI requests

Posted by Daniel in 


Last week we reported that an FOI we placed with the City asking for copies of all outgoing email for the City Manager for the first three weeks came up empty handed. We were advised by the City Clerk's Office that Dr. Penny Ballem indicated she didn't send any email from her City account and chose to use a private email system instead. According to her employment contract, Ballem became a City employee on December 12th, 2008.

This follows on the heels of asking to view a mere seven days worth of emails from Mayor 'open and transparent' Gregor Robertson, only to be told it would cost us $2680 for the privilege. That's because his Worship told the City Clerk he generated over 10,000 pages worth of email (10,000 pages @ .25 cents per copy + labour = $2680) in a single week.

As you will recall, were also denied access to the taxpayer funded cellular phone records for Laurie Best, Director of Communications.

After an emergency meeting of our executive team at Tower, it has been determined that we are going to send our requests for an official review by BC's Privacy Commissioner. The Commissioner has sweeping powers and if he believes it's in the public's best interests, he can order a review into both of our requests.


Obama Finds That Washington’s Habits of Secrecy Die Hard

April 5, 2009

Obama Finds That Washington's Habits of Secrecy Die Hard

WASHINGTON — At 12:01 p.m. on Jan. 20 — the precise moment Barack Obama became president of the United States — a new White House Web site sprang to electronic life with a pledge to "provide a window for all Americans into the business of the government." The next day, Mr. Obama issued a memorandum on transparency, promising to make it one of "the touchstones of this presidency."

But on issue after issue — a raucous internal debate over whether to release memorandums detailing harsh interrogation techniques used during the Bush years, for example, or publicizing financial information about high-level administration appointees — Mr. Obama has discovered that fulfilling his pledge is easier said than done.


Sunday, April 05, 2009

Rocky road led to Halifax Games bid collapse

Rocky road led to Games bid collapse 
Weeks before proposal was scuttled, organizers knew it was in financial trouble, documents show

City councillors Jim Smith, Sue Uteck and Debbie Hum display the letter they received announcing the with-drawal of the Halifax 2014 Commonwealth Games bid in March 2007.(Tim Krochak / Staff)

Just over two years ago, many Nova Scotians were stunned when Canada's bid to have Halifax host the 2014 Commonwealth Games suddenly died due to cost concerns.

The collapse of what supporters had felt was the best of three international bids seemed to come out of the blue.

But previously confidential documents show organizers and government partners knew weeks before the $1.7-billion proposal went belly up that the bid was not on solid ground financially.

And copies of minutes from Halifax 2014 executive committee meetings in early 2007 show the now-defunct committee was worried about key fiscal details being disclosed publicly prior to budget approval. The bid was yanked in March of that year.

Public relations specialist Deborah Hashey, who used to speak on behalf of the organizers, "discussed the communications strategy for the potential that information on the budget is leaked," the minutes say.

"She discussed the two scenarios that were strategized, including a rumoured leak and a substantiated leak."

Senior executive group members "stated that the budget number cannot be confirmed, even if a leak is substantiated because it has not been approved," the minutes say.

During a Jan. 24, 2007, executive session, a "plan for disclosure" was briefly discussed.

"Halifax 2014 will continue to communicate with the Commonwealth Games Federation (in London, England) prior to any announcements made publicly," the minutes say.

They also say "Halifax 2014 will provide Halifax Regional Municipality and province of Nova Scotia communications staff with questions and answers for disclosure."

Event opponents had criticized organizers for their secrecy in planning the Games. Committee officials had maintained confidentiality was crucial to beating the competition.


Friday, April 03, 2009

University of New South Wales holds out on revealing pay

UNSW holds out on revealing pay

7/03/2009 1:21:23 AM

THE University of NSW has become the only university in the state to reject a call from the NSW Ombudsman to reveal the details of salary packages enjoyed by vice-chancellors.

Despite the Ombudsman's specific advice that universities should release "the terms and conditions" in the contracts of their most senior staff, UNSW has rejected the Herald's freedom-of-information request for Fred Hilmer's contract.

The university has claimed it cannot release the document because it contains a confidentiality clause and to release it "would be found an action for breach of confidence" under the FoI Act, thereby rendering it exempt from release.

In his annual report last year, the NSW Ombudsman, Bruce Barbour, attacked such clauses, which he said were a deliberate attempt by the universities to avoid their obligations under the FoI laws.

He said some universities were acting contrary to the public interest by in effect "contracting out" of the FoI law by including confidentiality clauses in their salary agreements.


Thursday, April 02, 2009

Culture of secrecy must be broken

Culture of secrecy must be broken

April 03, 2009

Article from: The Australian

Bureaucrats who set out to thwart FOI requests break the law

THE inquiry by NSW Ombudsman Bruce Barbour into the Roads and Traffic Authority's management of Freedom of Information applications has pinpointed important issues that have long concerned The Australian in relation to all levels of government. Mr Barbour has sent his report to the NSW corruption watchdog, the Independent Commission Against Corruption, because he is concerned that potentially corrupt practices deliberately thwarting FOI requests may extend to the "entire public sector". If so, those responsible are breaking the law.

At the root of the problem is a culture of secrecy in which too many bureaucrats and politicians regard the public and the media as burdensome, meddling pests when exercising their rights to know more about how taxpayers' money is spent or why government decisions were made. The RTA's costly legal smokescreens, including engaging a lawyer on a $640,000 12-month contract, were exposed after The Daily Telegraph complained about its handling of requests for data on matters as basic as travel times and potholes.

Secrecy has been on the rise in NSW for years. A recent survey of more than 100 departments and agencies by the ombudsman found that refusals of FOI applications had increased by 18 per cent in recent years.

The culture of secrecy is also deeply entrenched in other jurisdictions. The Brumby Government has resorted to standover tactics, threatening to prosecute a Coalition staffer pursuing an FOI request about water. The federal Treasury, under the Howard government, blocked this newspaper's pursuit of data on bracket creep and the first-home buyers' scheme.

Much remains to be done, but the Rudd Government is moving forward in honouring its promise to transform the federal public service's culture of secrecy into one of disclosure. Special Minister of State John Faulkner has announced an overhaul of FOI laws that will allow the public greater access to information online.