In a previous article, Can an institution consult a sample of affected persons rather than notifying everyone?, I described an FOI request which asked the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs (OMAFRA) for the following information:
List of all Ontario businesses with a Farm Business Registration. If possible I would like their FBR number as well, but at the very least, I just need the names of the businesses that are registered.
To recap, OMAFRA determined that releasing the requested information could potentially “reveal a trade secret or scientific, technical, commercial, financial or labour relations information, supplied in confidence implicitly or explicitly” in violation of the “third party information” exemption set out in section 17 of Ontario’s Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act (FIPPA). OMAFRA decided to contact a sample of 490 affected persons to seek their input and representations.
The result of the consultations was significant blowback from Ontario farmers, with some expressing concerns that the anonymous request must have been filed by an animal activist or environmental group, or even by an individual requestor for personal reasons. Many farmers resisted the idea of OMAFRA disclosing any information at all in response to the request. However, OMAFRA decided it was obligated to release the names of businesses with a Farm Business Registration (FBR), although it planned to withhold the actual FBR numbers associated with such businesses.
The Ontario Federation of Agriculture and other stakeholders responded by filing appeals to OMAFRA’s decision, which led to the requestor withdrawing the request.
In a story posted today at Farms.com, staff writer Jackie Clark reveals new details about why the request was made, and the identity of the requestor. The story offers a number of fascinating insights into the perspectives, incentives and concerns of various stakeholders in the FOI system.
The identity of the requestor is revealed to be Poteck Power, a company with the declared purpose of “find[ing] the mistakes in every energy bill in Ontario, one customer at a time”:
Jeremy Poteck, founder and president of Poteck Power, has come forward and said that his company submitted the Freedom of Information (FOI) request asking for a list of Ontario businesses with a Farm Business Registration (FBR) earlier this year.
Poteck recently learned about the FOI process in Ontario.
“We believe strongly in transparency and we figure it would be a really good tool for us,” he explained. “We just figured (we would) submit an FOI, see every business that’s a farm in Ontario, and then use that as a list so that we can market our services to them.”
Poteck didn’t anticipate the strong reaction from the agricultural community in the province.
“There was a lot of concern about environmentalists and protesters,” he said. “It was interesting while the request was still outstanding to know that it was us, and that we really had good intentions and we were just trying to help.”
However, “once we saw the fears that it caused, we figured it might be best to let it go,” he added.Farms.com, December 9, 2020: FOI requester sets the record straight by Jackie Clark
Poteck explained that his company files a “fair number” of FOI requests, and that they “generally do it through a proxy because you never know if there’s going to be blowback.”
“The FOI process is always supposed to be anonymous, (but) we figured it just wouldn’t hurt to have a barrier in between Poteck Power and the requester, so that they don’t necessarily know that it was us. There is the potential for negative consequences with an FOI. There might be folks that are upset.”Jeremy Poteck, ibid
Other highlights from the article include that Poteck Power offered to narrow its request to corporations only, in order to reduce concerns of personal information being disclosed. However, affected parties remained steadfast in maintaining their appeals, leading to Poteck Power withdrawing the request completely. Jeremy Poteck is quoted as saying he believes his company “had the right to” the requested information, but that they “had no appetite” for adjudicating the dispute through the Ontario Information and Privacy Commissioner’s Office and potentially in court, and further, “given the negative attention it was getting and the anxiety it was causing the farmers, we decided it would be better to just drop it.”
The story concludes with Poteck’s thoughts on our Freedom Of Information system generally:
Poteck hopes this instance will not provide impetus to tighten up the FOI system, “when in reality they should be loosening it and making it easier for folks to get freedom and transparency of information,” he said.ibid
Rarely does such a short article capture so many interesting facets of the FOI system:
- concerns by affected persons over the identity of the requestor,
- the corresponding concern by a requestor that their identity may be improperly shared or revealed,
- the sometimes ill-defined lines between confidential information, personal information, and public information,
- the debate over where such lines should be drawn, and
- the withdrawal of a request by a requestor who believes their request to be valid, yet is too discouraged by the process and the potential for negative attention to pursue the matter further.
The result is perhaps a happy conclusion for Ontario’s farmers, but one which raises questions about the effectiveness of our FOI system.
The FOI Assist software is due for release in early 2021. To see previews of the software in action, and to be notified when the FOI Assist software is available for your institution, please follow the FOI Assist website. Simply enter your email address at the bottom of the page then click the follow button.