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Goverments 'lie' about information fredom: expert

Canada's antiquated access to information legislation is in dire need of an overhaul, argued Alasdair Roberts, a leading expert on freedom of information laws.

The country's 1983 Access to Information Act doesn’t address the nature of government records today, Roberts said at a panel discussion in Vancouver yesterday, International Right to Know day.

He cited an increase in the privatization of public services as one major concern, because private companies are not covered by access to information laws.

Even when the information itself is public, said Roberts, sometimes the management of that data has been outsourced and it isn't necessarily easy to access.

"How do you preserve public access to large amounts of digitized information, frequently held in proprietary databases?" asked Roberts.

Mary Carlson, executive director of the Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner in B.C., said that while this province enjoys fairly good freedom of information rights, the problem of delay is "epidemic."

"Access rights are dependent on the ability of people to dig up records," said Carlson. "Most of the delays are due to money and resource. FOI and privacy people…don't have enough power anymore, enough suasion to get the records."

Carlson said that replies to FOI request in British Columbia typically take 51 days, instead of the mandated 30 days.

A report released yesterday by the Canadian Association of Journalists echoed these concerns, finding that Canadian reporters wait months or years for replies to their access to information requests at a federal level.

Roberts said that security concerns have also trumped access to information laws since September 11 (for example, Transport Canada no longer makes public its reports on airport security), but reforming access to information law is a matter of maintaining political pressure.

"Successive government have learned they can basically lie to the Canadian public about their intention to reform the law," he said.

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