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Government docs on porn regulator will take six years to access: Justice Department

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OTTAWA — A New Democrat MP's request for documents related to a new regulator that will handle child pornography and exploitive material could take over half a decade for the government to process.

In a letter responding to NDP ethics critic Charlie Angus's access-to-information request, the Justice Department said it will take more than six years to provide correspondence and briefings from a three-month period between December and March related to the regulator.

The Liberal government announced in April it would introduce legislation to create a regulator that will ensure online platforms remove harmful content, including depictions of children and intimate images that are shared without consent.

Conservative and New Democrat MPs have questioned why a regulatory authority is needed to crack down on exploitive content when the Criminal Code already bars child pornography and the knowing distribution of illicit images.

Angus said the lack of details or timelines for the regulator prompted his request. He called the 75-month waiting period "ridiculous."

Civil servants in charge of information access in each department handle requests for documents, rather than elected politicians.

"But we've seen many times the political pressures on certain key files to slow down the release of those documents," Angus said in an interview.

The Justice Department said that time frames for processing requests are based on the estimated number of records and that interim release of documents is possible in high-volume cases.

"This complex work is undertaken by departmental officials in a non-partisan manner that respects access to information laws and policies," department spokesman Ian McLeod said in an email.

He noted requesters have the right to file a complaint with the information commissioner, which Angus did on July 13.

James L. Turk, director of the Centre for Free Expression at Ryerson University, said he was "staggered by this response" of a six-year timeline.

"It’s outrageous. It really shows how badly broken our access to information system is in Canada.”

Bureaucrats overseeing access to information and privacy (ATIP) are typically helpful, Turk said.

“Other times the ATIP officers act as if they’re guardians of Fort Knox."

The complaint process can take months due to lack of proper funding, he said, adding that multiple governments have failed to overhaul ATIP laws and achieve the transparency essential to a liberal democracy.

"You can't have a vibrant democratic society unless you have an informed citizenry. And access-to-information legislation is one of the things that helps ensure that," he said.

"At the end of the day, it's their information and their data."

Amendments to the Access to Information Act by the Liberal government in 2019 gave the information commissioner new powers to order the release of documents and view files that had previously been beyond the watchdog's scope. Bill C-58 marked the first major update to the legislation since it came into force in 1983.

"But the changes were mostly cosmetic," Turk said, arguing that exemptions can be interpreted too broadly under the act. 

The new regime does not compel the government to document its affairs, he said.

"So if it wants to avoid being transparent, it doesn’t put its decisions in writing."

The Treasury Board launched a review of the legislation in June 2020, with a focus on boosting "proactive publication" and reducing delays, said spokeswoman Geneviève Sicard.

"The government of Canada is committed to ensuring that access to information supports the openness, transparency and accountability of Canadian democratic institutions," she said in an email.

A report with recommendations is due by Jan. 31, following the wrap-up of virtual workshops that have so far featured experts, academics and members of the public, she said.

Wesley Wark, a senior fellow at the Centre for International Governance Innovation, dubbed the review a "public relations exercise."

He is calling for a green paper — a consultation document with policy proposals — to guide the review process and draw on previous calls for change.

Currently, the Access to Information Act allows the government to withhold information "obtained in confidence," deemed harmful to conducting international affairs or tied to defence and security. Cabinet documents are also off limits.

Information commissioner Caroline Maynard drew attention to the latter, among other legislative shortcomings, in a January report. Section 69 of the act excludes cabinet confidences from records available to the public.

The federal government's use of that exemption increased 49 per cent between 2014-15 and 2018-19, according to figures from the commissioner's office.

Canada has fallen behind countries such as the United Kingdom, United States and Finland in records access, Wark said.

"The system is broken. That's not the fault of the current Liberal government; it goes back decades," he said, citing a huge cultural problem and calling for immediate action.

Wark called the six-year timeline "absurd," "ridiculous" and an "abuse of the intent and spirit" of access to information laws.

After asking the Justice Department about the delay, it reached out to Charlie Angus to suggest "options" for reducing the wait.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published July 22, 2021.

Christopher Reynolds, The Canadian Press