The White House's new Open Data Policy has received many accolades, but its ability to be sustained long term will depend on support from the legislative branch. Fortunately, Congress has been working on these issues for the last several years.
Yesterday’s Supreme Court decision to uphold states’ rights to limit public information request to in-state requests, will likely hamper access by journalists and citizens to government information in certain states. To mitigate potential difficulties to access information in Alabama, Arkansas, Delaware, Georgia, New Hampshire, New Jersey, Tennessee and Virginia, MuckRock is seeking volunteers to serve as citizen co-filers from these states. MuckRock (a former Sunlight grantee) is a free service that serves as a FOIA proxy to request public records and creates a community database of FOIA-ed documents. In particular, our friends at MuckRock tell us they need the most help in Delaware.
Don’t let government transparency be limited by state lines, sign up to help!
To see an example of where the ability to file a local request in another state was critical to uncovering a special local interest, take a look at this story MuckRock unearthed in the FOIA process on drone documents.
Yesterday, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld a Virginia law that generally prohibits non-Virginians from making use of its Freedom of Information law. As part of its decision in McBurney v. Young, the Court held that the Constitution's Article IV "Privileges and Immunities" clause does not extend to a non-Virginian's right to access public information on equal terms with Virginia citizens.
The Constitution says that "the Citizens of each State shall be entitled to all Privileges and Immunities of Citizens in the several States," and the clause was intended to prevent a state from treating citizens of another state in a discriminatory manner. This ruling allows states like Virginia, Delaware, New Hampshire, and Tennessee to continue to make the benefits of their freedom of information laws available only to their citizens.
The Court squares this logical circle by concluding that the access to public information made available under state FOI laws are not "basic to the maintenance or well-being of the Union," and thus not a "fundamental" privilege or immunity the Constitution was intended to protect. It baldly states, without evidence, that "there is no contention that the Nation's unity founded in [the absence of FOIA laws prior to the 1960s], or that it is suffering now because of the citizens-only FOIA provisions that several States have enacted."
Last year we called the Cyber Intelligence Sharing and Protection Act (CISPA), H.R. 3523 in the 112th Congress, "terrible on transparency," because of a provision that would exempt a broad and poorly defined swath of information from the Freedom of Information Act.
CISPA is back in the 113th Congress and not much has changed. According to OpenTheGovernment.org, the bill still contains language that would exempt all "cybersecurity threat information" shared under the act from the FOIA. This is a dangerous and unnecessary precedent to set. As we noted last year, implementing a broad exception for poorly defined information without a public hearing "is irresponsible and should be opposed."
The Congressional debate over CISPA is currently taking place behind the closed doors of the House Select Committee on Intelligence. Chairman Mike Rogers has announced his committee's intent to mark up and vote on CISPA this month and a committee spokesperson has suggested that it will meet behind closed doors next week to consider the bill. The committee does not appear to be planning any public hearing or vote.
Along with 40 other groups, Sunlight has signed a letter urging the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence to hold any markup of CISPA in the open.
The committee should consider CISPA in the light of day. CISPA has the potential to affect the lives of every American and has drawn criticism from numerous privacy groups as well as the White House. Legislation this critical, and with this much potential to hinder the public's ability to hold their government accountable, deserves to be debated in full public view, not hidden behind closed doors.
You can follow CISPA using Scout, Sunlight's legislative tracking tool.
The Department of Justice deserves some applause for its plan to improve public access to FOIA materials. This has been in the works for a while: DOJ's Open Government Plan (PDF) rightly noted that
the volume of information available can make it difficult for interested persons to find the particular information they seek. Especially when it comes to FOIA disclosures, a uniform system is necessary to allow for easy discovery, identification and retrieval of information.
One could be forgiven for assuming this would lead to yet another monolithic .gov dashboard project that no one would actually use.
That's not the route they're taking, though. Instead, the plan emphasizes adopting technology that makes FOIA materials available "through commercial search engines that are already used by millions of people every day". The announcement goes on to note that:
Today the public is accustomed to using commercial search engines to find information online simply by entering key words. Agencies can ensure that such web searches effectively locate proactive disclosures [...] while at the same time, retaining their ability to post their records on their individual agency websites in an organic manner that serves the needs of the frequent visitors to their sites.
This is all exactly right. Government should bring its data to where users already are, not waste time building new destinations for them to discover.
How is DOJ going to get its data into these search engines? Well, they're planning to use metadata standards -- specifically Dublin Core. Like a lot of people who've worked as web programmers, I get a bit squeamish around Semantic Web technologies. When this stuff works, it's basically magic. But it's true that it's on my diagnositic list of "signs a project won't succeed" (I'd put it somewhere between "planning to roll their own web framework" and "lead developer just checked into rehab").
Still, there's no question that this technology is designed for just this sort of use. I have my doubts about the utility of the proposed new "FOIA" metadata tag for ordinary users, but it could be tremendously handy for those working on FOIA oversight.
The wisdom of this particular technical plan will likely be decided by the document workflows themselves: if documents are being published by their authors with tools that can't be made to insist upon metadata, it's unlikely that this strategy will do anyone much good.
But I suppose the people at the Department of Justice know a thing or two about getting people to comply with rules. Good luck to them.
As part of Sunshine week, I had the opportunity to testify at a House Oversight and Government Reform Committee hearing to share a few of Sunlight's ideas about making the executive branch more transparent. Video and text of my opening statement are below. It almost goes without saying that we're very interested in the transparency bills the Oversight Committee will be marking up this Wednesday.
Last week was busy and exciting here at Sunlight as we marked another successful Sunshine Week. It was a great opportunity to not only share our work in making government more open and transparent but to hear from others about their progress in matters of freedom of information. Here are some highlights from Sunshine Week 2013.
Open States Transparency Report Card
We released our very first Open States Transparency Report Card on March 11, which rated all 50 states and DC on the openness of their legislative data. We evaluated each state across six factors -- completeness, timeliness, ease of access, machine readability, use of commonly owned standards and permanence -- to get grades from A to F. Our Open State project also received kudos from the New York Times data team, as it recommended the Open States API as the best resource for those who want legislative data about New York state since the paper was shutting down the API it created.
Sunlight Speaks Out
Throughout Sunshine Week, Sunlight staff participated in a number of events to commemorate the week and address the work we do. Thanks to all who kicked off the week at our DC happy hour to celebrate President James Madison’s birthday. Head over to our Flickr page to see all the festivities from last Monday.
On March 12, Editorial Director Bill Allison was in Philadelphia speaking at WHYY’s public forum on Open Data 101. He was a panelist along with the head of Pennsylvania’s Open Records Office Terry Mutchler, New Jersey open records expert Marc Pfeiffer and Holly Otterbein from WHYY. Follow the evening’s conversation on Storify or watch a video clip of the panel.
Also on March 12, Policy Counsel Daniel Schuman moderated a Congressional Transparency Caucus panel which brought together FOIA experts to explore ways the FOIA process could be improved and made more easily accessible to the public.
Daniel was on Capitol Hill again on Wednesday, this time testifying before the House Oversight and Government Reform committee. His testimony -- which you can read about here -- encouraged the Oversight Committee to continue its good work, to adopt the government’s best transparency initiatives, and to help the Obama Administration meet its pledge to be the most transparent once ever.
Bill Allison was back on the FOIA speaking circuit on March 14 at a National Press Club panel with award-winning reporter Charles Babcock, now an editor at Bloomberg News; Randy Rabinowitz, director of regulatory policy for the Center for Effective Government; Lisette Garcia, senior investigator at Judicial Watch.
We concluded Sunshine Week with two events. First, Policy Director John Wonderlich spoke at a National Freedom of Information Day panel at the Newseum, hosted by OpenTheGovernment.org and the First Amendment Center. There, he outlined how the Obama Administration could make real progress on open government. You can make out some of the faces that attended here.
Sunshine Week would not be complete without a #FOIA chat. Sunshine Review invited Bill Allison as a guest during its weekly Twitter chat, where he shared FOIA tips and walked participants through the FOIA request submission process. During the Twitter chat, Bill also shared some resources which you may find useful in your own pursuit of public records. In case you missed it, here is a Storify recap.
The important work that we all do around open government and freedom of information shouldn’t end at Sunshine Week. Visit our Participate page to get involved year round.
Happy Sunshine Week! The FOIA-rich week may be winding down but there are plenty of events still lined up.
Tomorrow, Friday March 15 at 2:00 p.m. ET, our very own Bill Allison (Sunlight’s editorial director) will be on a Twitter FOIA chat -- taking your questions on all things FOIA and sharing some tips on using the Freedom of Information Act. He will also provide some information on some new resources that might help you, and heartfelt sympathy for the problems you encounter when using the Act.
Follow along as Bill composes a FOIA request in real time and submits it to a federal agency. To participate, submit your question or comment and add the (hashtag) #FOIAchat.
What: Twitter FOIA chat with Bill Allison, Sunlight's Editorial Director
When: March 15, 2013, 2:00 p.m. ET
Where: Twitter (#FOIAchat)
For those in D.C., this evening Bill will be a panelist with award-winning reporter Charles Babcock, now an editor at Bloomberg News; Randy Rabinowitz, director of regulatory policy for the Center for Effective Government; Lisette Garcia, senior investigator at Judicial Watch; on a panel about using the Freedom of Information Act to ferret out documents and data at the National Press Club, 6:30-8 p.m. You can still get your ticket here.
The Congressional Transparency Caucus is holding an event this Tuesday, March 12, 2013 to discuss recent progress in FOIA reform and explore what still needs to be done to improve public access to government records. The event will take place in room 2203 of the Rayburn House Office Building and will start at 3 p.m.
The Transparency Caucus will hear from a number of noted FOIA experts:
- Daniel Schuman, Policy Counsel, Sunlight Foundation (moderator)
- Miriam Nisbet, Director of the Office of Government Information Services (OGIS) at the National Archives and Records Administration
- Rick Blum, Coordinator, Sunshine in Government Initiative
- Gavin Baker, Open Government Policy Analyst at the Center for Effective Government
- Richard Pollock, Investigative Reporter, Washington Examiner
The Congressional Transparency Caucus is co-chaired by Representative's Mike Quigley (D-IL) and Darrell Issa (R-CA). The Caucus seeks to enact legislation that will bring openness and accessibility to the federal government.
This week, the Supreme Court heard arguments in a unique case revolving around how states deal with people and businesses from outside their borders when responding to Freedom of Information requests. The case tackles some of the different ways that each individual state administers their Freedom of Information Act, but it got me thinking about ways the the Federal level FOIA could be improved. Luckily, we heard three compelling presentations on this very topic at the most recent Advisory Committee on Transparency event. The talks dealt with limiting and defining exemptions as well as proactively releasing more information without waiting for a FOI request to be made. Click read more to see the videos!