Open Government Canada criticizes Privacy Commissioner's open letter to Information Commissioner

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TORONTO, May 11, 2001 /CNW/ - A coalition of academics, lawyers, librarians, activists and journalists working to reduce government secrecy has denounced the federal Privacy Commissioner for his unusual intervention into a dispute between the Information Commissioner and the Prime Minister’s Office.

"George Radwanski displays a fundamental lack of understanding of the issues involved in this dispute," says Robert Cribb, an Open Government Canada board member.

"In his misguided call for privacy, he is actually supporting government secrecy."

OGC’s comments come in the wake of yesterday’s release of an open letter from the federal Privacy Commissioner to the Information Commissioner, John Reid. The letter calls on Reid to drop his efforts to force the PMO to turn over the agendas of senior public officials, including the prime minister. Radwanski writes that if Reid were to succeed, it would be "tantamount to informational rape".

But OGC argues that Radwanski’s letter is built on faulty assumptions and misunderstandings.

The Information Commissioner is not seeking to release the agendas, but merely asserting his right to evaluate the documents, to see whether they should be released under the terms of the federal Access to Information Act.

The PMO argues that, unlike almost every other government office, they are not subject to the Act. The most recent court decision, at the federal Court of Appeal, supported the Information Commissioner’s stance. The PMO is seeking leave to appeal to the Supreme Court of Canada.

"The agendas of public figures are not about their personal lives, or shouldn’t be," said OGC’s Cribb. "Radwanski seems to think the Information Commissioner wants their personal diaries, which isn’t the case."

OGC’s position is that the agendas are public documents, describing the work of public officials in the name of Canadian citizens, and therefore should, in principle, be made public. But the ATIA contains many provisions, including a provision for personal information protection, allowing some information to be kept secret. It’s the Information Commissioner’s job to decide whether the information in the agendas falls under one of these provisions.

OGC is particularly outraged by Radwanski’s argument that privacy must always trump access rights. Radwanski disdains access as a mere "administrative right", paling in comparison to the "fundamental human right" of privacy.

However Professor Alasdair Roberts, a member of the OGC steering committee, argues that access to information is "an instrument for defending other basic human rights, including the right to physical integrity, the right to economic security, and political participation rights." Professor Roberts’ full argument will be published this summer in the University of Toronto Law Journal.

"Radwanski’s concept that openness is a trivial right that must always be trumped by privacy is bizarre and untenable," said Cribb.

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For more information:
Robert Cribb
Member, Open Government Canada
(416) 869-4411

Professor Alasdair Roberts (Queen’s University School of Policy Studies)
Member, OGC Steering Committee
(613) 540-0841

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