B.C. government under pressure over proposal to charge for freedom of information requests

More than 350 pages were released to Global News through a Freedom of Information request. Julia Wong/Global News

British Columbia’s privacy commissioner says the provincial government should not be charging a fee for filing requests under the province’s freedom of information system.

Michael McEvoy says proposed changes to B.C. privacy laws would allow the government to be less accountable to the public.

On Monday, the B.C. government tabled amendments to the freedom of information law that would add a fee for requests. Citizens’ Services minister Lisa Beare suggested on Monday the fee would be $25.

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“We live in a time where the public are demanding a lot of answers from its public bodies. Governments in a democracy is about holding them accountable. We cannot hold them accountable if we don’t know what they are doing,” McEvoy said.

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“One of the downsides of this legislation will make access to information to harder. it is the public’s information. They have the right to that information.”

The B.C. government claims the fees are necessary to catch up to what other jurisdictions are doing.

There have also been concerns raised of a few individuals and organizations putting in an excessive number of requests.

This includes one media member who put in 397 requests last year, more than all other media requests combined.

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The province would not consider the idea of charging fees only for those putting in excessive requests.

“What we are doing is bringing B.C. in line with other jurisdictions. We want to make sure people have access to information in a timely manner,” Beare said.

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The fee would only be for non-personal FOI requests. Personal requests would remain free.

The privacy act has not been amended since 2011.

The other changes include updating the data-residency provisions so public bodies can use tools like Zoom while continuing to protect personal information.

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The legislation also proposes increasing information sharing with Indigenous people, adding Indigenous cultural protections and removing non-inclusive language.

The new rules would also allow the province to store data outside of the country.

“People need to know their information is safe no matter where it is stored. There are a number of ways we can ensure the data is safe including through encryption,” Beare said.

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The province processes more than 10,000 FOI requests annually. Volume requests have increased by more than 40 per cent over the last two years.

The average cost to the government for processing a single FOI request is $3,000. According to the province, currently fees to produce records are collected in fewer than two per cent of FOI requests.

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B.C. Liberal critic Bruce Banman says the fees would damage our democracy.

“This is paying for what we have already paid for as taxpayers,” Banman said.

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