Category Archives: Freedom of Information

Online Surveys, No Longer Much Fun

Once upon a time, it was fun to take online polls. For lots of reasons. But one of my favourites was to watch how poorly polls could be constructed.

https://i2.wp.com/dgivista.org/uploaded_images/Canada20:20-713097.jpg?resize=377%2C236Once, six years ago, Innovative Research Group put a racist poll into the field. It included questions about whether I had favourable or unfavourable feelings about various races and religious groups, sometimes lumping in folks who come from nearby places. It was disgusting. What DID I think about Blacks, South Asians [as opposed to, say, Asians], Muslims, recent immigrants…you get the picture. They didn’t ask about South Americans or Jews or Hindus. Or Christians. I wonder why.

At any rate, I took a bunch of screenshots of the offensive survey, so that I could write about it and show everyone what kind of data they were trying to mine. Maybe they were just trying to figure out who were the racists in their polling pool.

angus.bannerBut as you can see below, Angus Reid has developed a new tool that it is using in at least some of its online polls:

No fun allowed.
No fun allowed.

Aside from the understandable agreement to not share client’s proprietary information, it requires participants to not take screen shots of the poll itself. To continue with the survey we are required to agree that we will not “photograph, record, publish on the Internet, copy, or in any way reproduce any of the confidential information included in this study.”

Well, that’s just sad.

If they end up asking some really notable questions, we can’t share that. Or, if they trot out a racist survey like IRG did six years ago, I wouldn’t be able to share the love.

I wonder what kind of consequence there would be if I were to share, not client confidential information in the survey, but really crappy survey methodology that doesn’t violate a third party’s privacy. Is the worst that can happen that I would be barred from future surveys?

All I know for sure is that pollsters have really screwed up lately, completely blowing the Alberta and BC provincial elections, and being out in left field on the US presidential election. It comes from having unrepresentative samples because people don’t want to answer calls, or certain types of people not having landlines, and people just lying about how much they intend to actually vote. Then polling firms try to adjust for underrepresented populations. Often badly.

What if pollsters, going forward, realizing their methodologies are…suspect…now try some new kinds of engagement. And now, they don’t want us sharing that.

Their credibility is in the toilet. Adding this agreement stage to the whole process may poison their cherished online polling community. It’s called Werner Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle. And Angus Reid might have just stepped in it.

Class War: US$11.5 Trillion Hidden in Tax Havens

Which tax haven is right for you?
Which tax haven is right for you?

UPDATE: Apparently the families of the 1% are hoarding as well.

Class war is alive and well.

I have this rose-coloured, nostalgic dream of history. Once upon a time we emerged from feudalism with a democratic revolution. All were equal. Well, most.

But the hope of democracy was to rid the world of the despot rule of aristocracy. But then we got corporations. Many of the aristocratic elite ended up entrenching their power through these fake humans. And we still have the aristocrats today. And for centuries, the rest of the elite have wielded power through corporations.

So this year when data was leaked with information about who is using tax havens, governments lined up to do nothing to stop it. Governments are compradors who serve the elite. They are in no rush to go after cash socked away in tax havens, even if it means eroding the capacity of governments to do the work of government.

US$11.5 TRILLION are socked away in tax havens.

And that’s no accident. The elites do not like governments. They include regulations that box in the elites and attempt to distribute their wealth through taxes in order to serve the people. Like some kind of democracy. Or something.

But as you will read below, you will see a few features of the feudalism we currently live in:

  1. The Conservative Party and the elites want to get rid of governments to the extent that they can, which is why they go out of their way to reduce possibilities of increasing revenue.
  2. Stashing money in tax-free zones is the elite’s nest egg.
  3. Canada is foregoing billions of dollars in tax revenue by not pursuing taxing this hidden money.
  4. Tax evasion is illegal, unless the government does not pursue your evasion, which is the norm for corporations.

All I know is that if I got a job and tried to set up a corporations in an off-shore tax haven, I wouldn’t be able to convince my employer to pay my corporation instead of me. Humans with SINs need to pay taxes.

But if I decided to not work for anyone as an employee, I could create a corporation registered in an off-shore tax haven. Then if I could contract out my work so an organization hires my corporation to do work, I could conceivably not have to pay tax if I work my accounting correctly. Donating money to the federal Conservative Party may help discourage CRA from pursuing the wealth I could sock away in a tax haven.

And I’d have to go back and check to see if the Liberal Party in government was any good at tracking down offshore stashed cash. But considering what kind of an offshore expert Paul Martin is, I’d doubt their record is any better.

And where does this leave us?

Well, firstly, we need to remember that class war is alive and well. There is a collection of rich elites who are really running things by influencing/being governing parties and by being untouchable. And the rest of us are serfs.

Secondly, the goals of the Occupy Movement were bang on. And they still exist.

Thirdly, when you see a politician speaking and acting strongly to support democracy instead of neglecting the elites, support them. But you’ll hear a lot of crickets.

Fourthly, expect more decadent, despotic behaviour from the elites. They seem to get off on it.

Earlier this year, 2.5 million files and 120,000 companies and trusts who use offshore tax havens was revealed by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) that caused an international furor. What also became apparent when this list was revealed was, that like the Lagarde list, governments had access to this information for years and were not doing anything to hunt down these funds. In fact, the Harper government has eschewed all efforts to pursue this money, while at the same time laying off 3,000 tax collectors at the CRA this budget year.

“The offshore system is the secret underpinning for the political and financial power of Wall Street today. It is the fortified refuge of big finance,” Nicholas Shaxson, author of Treasure Islands, a 2011 book on offshore tax havens, has said. And he is quite right.

Today, the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) claims that offshore banks globally hide some (US) $5-trillion to (US) $7-trillion from tax authorities, or about 8 per cent of the world’s assets under management. Moreover, an estimated (US) $11.5-trillion is being stashed in offshore accounts worldwide for one reason or another.

Now governments talk about the so-called “tax gap” — the difference between what they could collect and do collect — caused by the use of offshore havens. In the U.K., this estimate ranges from £50 billion to £100-billion annually. Of that, about £20-billion sits in offshore tax havens. Meanwhile, though, the CRA refuses to make an estimate of the tax gap in Canada, but it’s safe to say if they did they would find it’s in the many tens of billions.

The offshore tax haven issue speaks to one of the Great Lies currently promulgated by conservative, liberal and even social democratic governments: which is that governments are broke. And hence they must lay off civil servants, impose cuts and wage restraints on the public sector. And it is why governments are desperately trying to avoid the issue: after all, they’ve all encouraged tax evasion and avoidance by offering corporations and the wealthy lower and lower taxes and greater tax breaks over the years. Now they are reaping what they have sown.

– from How offshore tax havens destroy governments | rabble.ca.

Aaron Swartz, Intellectual Property and the Public Good

vault
Should academic work be locked up like Disney[tm] artifacts?
I’ve been quite inspired by this very good analysis of the context surrounding Aaron Swartz’s suicide.

As news spread last week that digital rights activist Aaron Swartz had killed himself ahead of a federal trial on charges that he illegally downloaded a large database of scholarly articles with the intent to freely disseminate its contents, thousands of academics began posting free copies of their work online, coalescing around the Twitter hashtag #pdftribute.

via How academia betrayed and continues to betray Aaron Swartz « The Berkeley Blog.

The willingness of scholars to promote the freedom of information shows what kind of future many of us want. However,

MIT’s decision to make sharing journal articles a criminal matter is inexcusable.

But this is no surprise because of our neoliberal world with a studied bloodlust for intellectual property. Universities are merely indoctrinating/extorting the next generation into the anti-sharing mentality. Our knowledge is ours to profit from and not for the good of humanity. And by ours, I mean the university’s. Individuals have a virtually impossible time getting ahead academically if they don’t submit to the intellectual property regimes by kissing their ring.

But their real betrayal was allowing these articles to fall into private hands in the first place.

And there are historical reasons for this, which the article explores very well.

Although most academic research is funded by the public, universities all but force their scholars to publish their results in journals that take ownership of the work and place it behind expensive pay walls.

If you read the remainder of the above article you can see how the institution of academia is inadvertently structured to oppress innovation and the creation of a new, exciting, better future for us all. Or maybe not so inadvertently.

Information wants to be free. Lots of us want it to be free too. Politics, Re-Spun started in part as a venue for me to paste academic work that reflects a great deal of reflection and research but that only had merit in an academic context before it became obsolete when a grade was bestowed. I’ve pasted, shortened, lengthened my essays into this site. I also took the valuable feedback from my profs and TAs to make my pieces better to share with everyone; the others were perfect already. 🙂

Others on this site have done the same. And hopefully more academic content will show up on here too in the future.

And frankly, when it comes to free information, governments have an obligation to make the vast majority of its information free, especially with extremely cheap hard drive space for internet servers. In the name of all that is good and quantum, my newest flash stick is 32gb, larger than the combined hard drive space of my first 6 computers I ever owned.

And governments need to unleash information without annoying freedom of information procedures designed to impede the freedom of information, information that, like much academic research, was paid for by our public dollars. Continuing to hide from the public the information about government has undermined citizens’ capacity to evaluate whether governments are doing a good job.

And when it comes to academic knowledge “created” at publicly-funded universities, we should not let the cabal of journals monetize and privatize that information. At the very least, if it’s publicly-funded, it should be publicly-available.

I’d like to end with two things. The first is a link to the Wayward School, “a co-operative school of thoughts and actions” in Victoria. They understand a few things about freedom. They are a venue of change in academia. They deserve your support and attention.

And the second is this call out on academia, from the above article, which I support 100%:

Had the leaders of major research universities reacted to this technological transformation [the interwebz] with any kind vision, Swartz’s dream of universal free access to the scholarly literature would now be a reality. But they did not. Rather than seize this opportunity to greatly facilitate research and education, both within and outside the academy, they chose instead to reify the status quo.

Can Freedom of Information Be Free? (Updated)

Updated below with more information.

By now, it’s pretty much common knowledge that you can (attempt to) request information from government agencies and offices under the various Freedom of Information Acts or Access to Information Acts across the country.  In BC, we have the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act that sets out the rules and procedures as to how we do that.

However, while you can certainly request information from the government, they don’t always have to release it – and when they do, they can charge you. A lot.  $30 per hour spent finding the documents you request, $16.50 per minute of use of the ‘central mainframe computer,’ $0.25 per page, and so on.

But interestingly, the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act allows for the fees to be waived, if the request “relates to a matter of public interest.”

And at the same time, the BC government has committed to publishing most (but not all) FOI request results online at www.openinfo.gov.bc.ca, because, in the words of Premier Clark:

“Open government is about sharing information and giving British Columbians more opportunities to participate in decisions that make a difference in their lives.”

Definitely sounds like a matter of public interest to me.

So here’s a question that comes to mind:

  • The government can charge you fees for Freedom of Information Act Requests.
  • Fees can be waived for records that relate to matters of public interest.
  • The government, perhaps with the public interest in mind, publishes most Freedom of Information Act requests online.
So…
  • Could it be argued that all Freedom of Information Act published by the BC Government should automatically have their fees waived, since they’ve been released in what appears to be the public interest?

I have an FOI request pending. If I get assessed fees, I’ll appeal with this argument and we’ll see what happens.  Perhaps Freedom of Information will finally be free.

Or perhaps we’ll see the Liberals redefine the Act, or what is ‘public interest,’ or just ignore me altogether.

Here’s an update:

In case law (decisions from the Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner), there is a test that determines whether or not something is a matter of public interest and can have fees waived.  This is the analytical framework at play (with some important bits underlined, emphasis mine):

  1. The head of the Ministry must examine the requested records and decide whether they relate to a matter of public interest (a matter of public interest may be an environmental or public health or safety matter, but matters of public interest are not restricted to those kinds of matters). The following factors should be considered in making this decision:
    (a) has the subject of the records been a matter of recent public debate?;
    (b) does the subject of the records relate directly to the environment, public health or safety?;
    (c) could dissemination or use of the information in the records reasonably be expected to yield a public benefit by:
    (i) disclosing an environmental concern or a public health or safety concern?;
    (ii) contributing to the development or public understanding of, or debate on, an important environmental or public health or safety issue?; or
    (iii) contributing to public understanding of, or debate on, an important policy, law, program or service?;
    (d) do the records disclose how the Ministry is allocating financial or other resources?
  2. If the head of a Ministry, as a result of the analysis outlined in paragraph 1, decides the records relate to a matter of public interest, the head must still decide whether the applicant should be excused from paying all or part of the estimated fee. In making this decision, the head should focus on who the applicant is and on the purpose for which the applicant made the request. The following factors should be considered in doing this:
    (a) is the applicant’s primary purpose for making the request to use or disseminate the information in a way that can reasonably be expected to benefit the public or is the primary purpose to serve a private interest?
    (b) is the applicant able to disseminate the information to the public?

In this case, I would argue that the government’s decision to create the OpenInfo website signals that any FOI result it intends to publish on the website is a matter of public interest under part 1(c)(iii) of the test, because, as Christy Clark herself says, it’s about “sharing information” and giving BC residents a chance to “participate” in decisions about their lives.

Part 1(a) of the test is slightly sticky, and I don’t think that it captures investigative journalism or advocacy; here, a group could be exploring an issue that they want to be a matter of public debate, and FOI material could enable it to become one – and I would argue then, that ex post facto, the matter would become a matter of public interest, though it may not have been when the record was first sought. Perhaps that part needs updating.

Regardless, I would argue that the publishing of FOI results online is an acknowledgement by the government that government information and documents are matters of public interest, and that fes should be waived, because, as the OpenInfo website itself says:

[It is about] proactively working to provide citizens with access to the information that matters most to them – no closed doors or hidden agendas. It’s felt that this candid disclosure will create opportunities for citizens to participate in government and collaborate on decisions being made.

If a blogger or journalist were pursuing a story and wanted to disseminate to the public the results of the FOI request on a website, through a public campaign, or a media story, the second part of the test would arguably be met as well.

Interesting.