The high cost of free information
Canada’s highly complex access to information system has spawned a profession of "information warriors" that shouldn't exist
John Dunn is on welfare. To journalists and other curious citizens using Canada’s free information laws to seek out public records, this is his greatest asset.
For a small fee (Dunn is allowed to make only $200 per month while receiving government assistance), Dunn will file an access to information (ATI) request on your behalf. The Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act (FIPPA) states that if the citizen filing an ATI request can’t afford it, the fees may be waived. Dunn will apply, and, in all likelihood, the government will agree that a citizen on welfare can’t reasonably be expected to pay often expensive, sometimes exorbitant, ATI fees. You pay Dunn less than you would have paid the government, and everybody wins.
For years, enterprising, policy-savvy individuals such as Dunn have been using the complexity of Canada’s ATI system to their benefit, mastering the convoluted process and charging journalists and news organizations for their services. Deadline-driven reporters in increasingly understaffed, overworked newsrooms rarely have the time to file and stay on top of ATI requests (which, beyond a slow-moving back-and-forth through Canada Post, often require multiple phone calls and prodding of ministries to keep on track). But, as much as ATI professionals help journalists uncover important records otherwise buried within ministry archives, it shouldn’t take a professional to navigate a system meant to guarantee every Canadian access to public records.
Among the many pitfalls that plague access to information, both federally and provincially, fees are foremost. FIPPA states that the fees attached to ATI requests can’t exceed the actual costs of fulfilling the request, which include research, photocopying and redaction (yes, that means you have to pay the government to withhold information from you). But this isn’t always the case.
For every John Dunn helping journalists navigate access to information, there are private contractors performing similar work on the government side and making, in most cases, much more money. In the past decade, the federal government has spent over $57 million on outside consultants to handle ATI requests—an expense that has grown steadily every year. These consultants charge anywhere between $20 and $225 per hour to assess which public records can be released in response to an ATI request.
Part of every ATI fee is designated for research and, in cases where outside consulting is involved, research fees spike. Fortunately for journalists, there are several ways to work around this. Narrowing a request, either by time span or subject matter, yields fewer documents and takes the ministry less effort to process, resulting in (at least theoretically) lower fees. Another way to narrow a request is by asking to see a list of relevant documents after filing the ATI, then picking and choosing from that list.
Yet, even among those who make a living off the Byzantine complexity of the current system, some have joined the ongoing call for reform. According to award-winning ATI specialist Ken Rubin, Canada’s self-described “information warrior,” free information should be a constitutional right, rather than a privilege. “I’ve got to admit I enjoy the work,” Rubin says of his job. “I want to stimulate others to go out, dig around and question authority.”
Despite his noble aims, Rubin’s class of ATI specialists is a profession that shouldn’t exist. Canada shouldn’t need information warriors because accessing free information shouldn’t be a battle.
by Jonah Brunet
Jonah Brunet is copy and display editor for the Spring 2016 issue of the Ryerson Review of Journalism.