Ontario’s Information and Privacy watchdog will soon remind politicians and civil servants that using Gmail, Hotmail or BlackBerry Messenger will not hide official communications from freedom-of-information requests.
“I would acknowledge that there may be information that should have been disclosed but hasn’t been because of a lack of knowledge of what the rules are,” commissioner Brian Beamish said in an interview Tuesday.
“If the email is dealing with government or agency or municipal business, it is subject to the legislation. It doesn’t matter what device or account it is sent from.”
The Toronto Star reported last week that Beamish’s office ordered an Oshawa city councillor to disclose a 2013 email, involving a $5.9-million land deal, written on her personal account.
The issue exploded into U.S. headlines with revelations that Democratic nominee hopeful Hillary Clinton not only used private email for State Department business but had her own unsecured home server.
It is well known in Ontario political circles that some elected officials and their staff members use personal emails, BBM and other online tools, including Google Calendar, for some official business.
Beamish said that, in the wake of discussions generated by the Oshawa story, his office is preparing guidelines to reinforce past assertions that work emails, regardless of how they’re sent, are subject to Ontario’s Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act and a similar act covering municipal governments.
“I have no doubt that there is still a lack of knowledge of that out there,” Beamish said. “We could probably do a better job at getting that message out.”
The commissioner, who succeeded Ann Cavoukian in 2014, said he senses information and privacy officers in government offices understand the rules, but that some officials asked to turn over their relevant correspondence do not.
Just because an email is subject to the act doesn’t mean the public will learn its contents.
Transparency advocates say Canada is behind some other countries in this respect. Politicians and bureaucrats routinely invoke exemptions that can see pages of released information blacked out in whole or part.
The Oshawa case was also notable because it was a city councillor, not a mayor or civil servant, forced to disclose an official communication.
Beamish acknowledged that most requests for councillors’ communications are denied.
Generally, emails, letters and the like are not subject to the act when they are “political” — including communications with constituents and lobbyists. Communications about official business, when they are acting as cabinet ministers, as parliamentary secretary or, at city hall, a committee chair, are fair game.
Beamish last year repeated Cavoukian’s three-year-old call for Premier Kathleen Wynne’s government to amend freedom of information laws to improve public access to communications generated by the municipal councillors they elect.
Mark Cripps, a spokesman for Municipal Affairs Minister Ted McMeekin, told the Star the minister recently met with Beamish about his suggested reforms. However, the government, including the Government and Consumer Services ministry that oversees the acts, is still determining “the best path forward.”