Introducing POIA


Today Representative Steve Israel introduced the Public Online Information Act calling for government to:

  1. Create an expert committee for all three branches of government to steer government towards making datasets publicly available in meaningful ways.

  2. Direct the executive branch to consider guidelines issued by that committee and for the CIOs of various agencies to do the same thing, and

  3. Place online all publicly available government documents and data held by the executive branch. This includes everything they’ve got, with a few potential exceptions: classified information, personnel rules, trade secrets, “priviliged inter/intra agency memos”, information affecting an individuals privacy, law enforcement records, records of financial institutions, and most importantly, geographical information concerning wells. Those are the same exceptions as in FOIA.

In the event that a document is considered exempt, government must still publish a redacted version, except in very limited circumstances, and even then, they must say that they’ve withheld a file. (The file’s already publicly available, just not online, so you can check up on their claims). All of this is backed up with the ability for you to sue if they don’t follow these rules.

So that’s the jist the bill does. Why’s it important?

First, because of that committee. Hopefully, if it isn’t overrun by lobbyists, contractors and vendors, it’ll give us– the citizens– a seat at the table about how our data is released to the public. That’s really important. There’s no official means, as it stands now, for the entire government to take our advice and suggestions about data publication. That’s a big deal.

Second, unlike the Open Government Directive, which can be revoked by future administration because it is an executive order, this legislation requires agencies to put all information online generated or updated after enactment. It is also broader: the OGD only reaches some executive agencies, this gets all of them. And when this law passes, it’ll create a flood of government data.

The technology community needs to band together to get this bill passed. Passing this law means:

  1. Creating small businesses and jobs. Companies form around government data– whether it be GPS or Customs Imports data, these datasets create jobs.

  2. Empowering non-profits to further their mission. By releasing data, all non profits can further drive their missions– drive down their costs and increase their effectiveness.

  3. Driving down apathy amongst citizens. Transparency kills apathy– when people know what’s going on, they don’t become more apathetic they become more active. They get involved and they try to make change.

  4. A model law has been created that can be adoped by other governments both state and local, and international.

Because the stuff we work on is so obscure and arcane to most of society, this is going to take some work to pass. Like many bills, this could get sent to committee and stay there where it will shrivel up and die. That is, after all, what happens to most bills. We, the tech community, need to make sure people know about the bill, support it, and tell their members of congress to support it. Please– read the bill, endorse it publicly, and do what you can to help us get it passed into law.