Privacy office appealing database release

Reprinted with permission from the the Toronto Star

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Tuesday, May 28, 2002

Phinjo Gombu

Toronto Star 


Ontario's information and privacy commissioner is appealing a court order requiring the release of Toronto's municipal election donations in the hopes of keeping the electronic database from the public.

The appeal is being made by the office of commissioner Ann Cavoukian despite a willingness by the city to open its computer records.

Municipal campaign donations are available to the public as printed documents, but not as an electronic database.The city initially opposed sharing its database, but decided it won't challenge a May 10 ruling by three Divisional Court judges who ordered a release of electronic records detailing who gave money to municipal candidates and the size of each donation.

"It's somewhat troubling that the privacy commissioner, which is the decision-maker, is appealing when the city is not," said Paul Schabas, lawyer for The Star, yesterday. "Usually decision-makers, such as the commission, don't appeal when the court overturns them. It's kind of like a trial judge trying to justify his or her own decision."

The Star first requested access to the database more than three years ago, under the Municipal Freedom of Information and Privacy Act. The provincial commissioner oversees both the provincial and municipal information and privacy acts.

Schabas said the appeal by the commissioner also raised questions about the body's commitment to accessing information, even when it conflicts with tenuous privacy rights. "This is especially so in this case when we are dealing with something so obviously public as election contribution information."

The commissioner agreed with the city that the Municipal Act didn't require the release of such data and that releasing it would constitute an unjustified invasion of privacy.

In making its decision, the city said because the information on campaign donations was already publicly available in another format, there was no need to release the electronic records.

The three-member panel of Divisional Court judges, however, took the view that concern about the privacy of individuals in this case had to take a back seat to the principle of public scrutiny. The judges said any fears about the misuse of such a database in the present electronic age were unreasonable.

Bob Spence, a spokesperson for the commissioner, said yesterday that the commission's lawyers felt the judges had made a series of errors in arriving at the decision to release the database, and the current system to release donation information was sufficient.

Rita Reynolds, the City of Toronto's corporate access and privacy officer, said yesterday that city council directed staff not to appeal the court order.

An appeal of a Divisional Court ruling is not automatic. The Court of Appeal must first agree to hear the case.


Ontario Information & Privacy Commissioner ruling: MO-1366

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