Editorial: BC’s proposed $25 fee for FOI requests will hinder access to information at UBC

The BC NDP is trying to slap a $25 fee on Freedom of Information requests (FOIs) something that would hamper the public’s ability to access information at UBC.

Earlier this week, Lisa Beare, the minister for citizen services, brought forward several changes to the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act (FIPPA) — the legislation that allows journalists to get information from public institutions that they won’t release of their own accord. This includes email correspondence, internal documents, data and much more.

Some of these changes have the potential to improve transparency and accountability in BC: the government wants to add new penalties for those who deliberately delete requested data and mandate reporting when data is hacked. In addition, one amendment proposes a requirement that public bodies not disclose information that could harm Indigenous peoples.

However, the sticking point for The Ubyssey and for many journalists across BC is the $25 fee to file a Freedom of Information request.

FOIs have allowed us to tell stories that otherwise would have never been told. In the last year alone, FOIs allowed us to dig into changes to UBC’s cash payment policies after provincial concerns about money laundering, the harmful impacts of Greekrank on Greek life and public health violations by the frats.

We also were the first outlet to question the lack of COVID-19 data at UBC — reporting spurred by information found in documents we requested under FIPPA.

At UBC, this new fee would implement yet another barrier to accessing this information — which is already difficult as it is.

UBC takes a notoriously long time to respond to FOI requests. In the last few years, none of our FOIs have been returned within the allotted thirty days outlined in the act.

In late January 2021, we filed an FOI request for one specific email. We got that email in May.

They’re allowed to extend time, but often at UBC, the deadline passes and no word comes from the university.

This is not to slight the people who work within UBC’s access and privacy office — as of 2018, UBC was the most FOI-ed university in Canada. This may still be true — in our correspondence with the staff that work at Access and Privacy at UBC, they often say they have a significant backlog of requests they’re working through.

But implementing a fee is not an answer to understaffing.

In a press release sent out by the government on the FIPPA amendments, Jennifer Burns, UBC’s associate vice-president, information technology and chief information officer, was quoted saying, "UBC welcomes these proposed amendments. They will substantially increase the privacy and security of personal data with more robust and resilient services by allowing us to select the most secure and effective solutions.”

“We appreciate the opportunity to collaborate with the government on changes that will boost the competitiveness and efficiency of B.C. post-secondary institutions while helping protect our students, faculty and staff,” Burns wrote in the press release.

However, Michael McEvoy, the BC information and privacy commissioner, strongly opposed this new fee in a letter to Beare, writing that he was “unable to understand how this amendment improves accountability and transparency when it comes to public bodies that operate in a free and democratic society.”

There’s a question of governance here as well — members of the Board of Governors said this is the first they’ve heard of these changes, even as a UBC administrator is quoted saying the university as a whole supports them. There is even concern that this issue may not even be within Burns’ purview.

For us at The Ubyssey, this would create a financial barrier to information. $25 an FOI adds up quickly, and it’s four or five times higher than the fee in most other Canadian provinces.

John Horgan told reporters yesterday that the fee has not yet been finalized. We urge Horgan and the BC government to reconsider this fee.

At a time when faith in public institutions — including universities — to provide information in the public’s interest is wavering, it seems strange that the government would attempt to make themselves seem even more unaccountable.

So, to UBC and the BC NDP — do better.