IPC Ontario says a disclosure on the internet is just another disclosure

The Information and Privacy Commissioner/Ontario issued a notable investigation report on March 20th. It held that the City of Vaughan did not breach the Municipal Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act by publishing personal information from a minor variance application on the internet.

The information in a minor variance application is required by statute to be accessible to the public, but by statutory language that speaks to “making available” and allowing for “inspection.” The complainant did not take issue with access to her information, but did not want her information published on the internet. The IPC essentially held that disclosure was authorized, and also that disclosure by internet publication was just another disclosure. Its key text is as follows (with my emphasis):

A concern raised in Gombu was that disclosing records in an electronic format was detrimental
to privacy because it removed the de facto privacy protection created by the relative obscurity of
paper records. As noted by the Court, circumstances have changed such that records are expected
to be provided in electronic format. Part of this is the ease of use for individuals wishing to
access records and databases which in turn increase transparency. Indeed, in Gombu this was the
complainant’s stated purpose for requesting an electronic copy of the database.

In confirming that the records could be disclosed in bulk electronic format, the Court noted that
this would make them more easily accessible with minimal further intrusion upon personal
information contained within given that they were already subject to disclosure.

In the circumstance of this complaint, sections 1.0.1. and 44(10) of the Planning Act and 253 of
the Municipal Act, taken together, specifically override the privacy interest of individuals
engaging the minor variance process and, as in Gombu, mandate the disclosure of personal
information in association with that process. I conclude that the City’s decision to disclose the
complainant’s personal information in electronic format is in compliance with the Act.

In response to the argument that this information should not be disclosed via the Internet, in the
circumstances of this complaint I cannot identify any basis that would prohibit information
otherwise subject to the section 32 exceptions from being disclosed via the Internet. I note that
Committees of Adjustment are required to demonstrate accountability via a transparent process
that permits individuals to participate, scrutinize and to hold institutions such as the City
accountable. As such, making these records available online facilitates this goal in a manner
consistent with the Act.

The IPC praised the City for administering a public record redaction procedure that allows individuals to request redaction. It also said the City should explore the use of web search exclusion technologies so that personal information it publishes on the internet is not readily searchable. This seems like a recommendation about best practices rather than one that is rooted in the statute.

Privacy Complaint Report MC13-67