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Critics slam NDP's proposed Freedom of Information Act changes

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The NDP government is under fire for proposed changes to the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act, which some worry will lead to more secrecy and less transparency.

Lisa Beare, the Minister for Citizen Services, introduced amendments this week that she says are overdue.

Among the changes are new penalties for those who flout freedom of information rules by deliberating deleting requested data, and for those caught "snooping" through files they don't need to access. Another provision provides for mandatory reporting when data is hacked.

But what many people have taken offence to is a $25 fee for anyone who puts in a freedom of information request to find out how government is making decisions – decisions it makes on the public's behalf and with taxpayer dollars.

Privacy Commissioner Michael McEvoy takes issue with the government's stance that several other Canadian provinces have fees too.

"It acts as a barrier, and that's just not right. In an age where, again, it's the public's information to begin with, it should not cost the public additional money to get that information," he told CTV News.

Samara Starkman is a data privacy expert and lawyer who is a managing partner with INQ consulting. She points out even the $5 fee introduced in Ontario has been a deterrent, despite the existence of a waiver to cancel fees.

She suggested that or a cap on fees in B.C. may be needed: "We believe the commissioner still has reason to be concerned about access."

The minister says the number of requests are going up, and it takes time to process them all. In a scrum with reporters, Beare added some media outlets put in more requests than all others combined. She said the decision was made after consultation.

Asked who suggested the fee would work, she responded, "health authorities, universities, other public sector bodies."

They all respond to information requests. Beare also insisted journalist and others had an "opportunity to comment."

Opposition parties and journalists rely on the requests when government doesn't answer questions. When it wasn't in power, the NDP regularly used the service.

McEvoy pointed out $25 may not seem like a lot, but can be an impediment.

"If you're going to various health authorities, if you're going to the Ministry of Health, if you're going to a whole range of public bodies, that $25 begins to add up fairly quickly," McEvoy said.

Starkman agreed the decision could fly in the face of what FOI rules are meant to do: provide transparency.

"You don't want to limit the ability to access public information, and to essentially close off the ability to hold government accountable."

The commissioner also said it's "exceedingly troubling" that public agencies will be able to store your personal data outside Canada, without explaining exactly how that information will be kept safe.

Starkman noted many private businesses already do this, and in this regard B.C. was behind many other jurisdictions. Still, she said the change would need to be accompanied by strict rules and safeguards.

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