Sunlight’s Foreign Influence Explorer influences DOJ policy


It’s been less than a month since Sunlight launched its new-and-improved Foreign Influence Explorer, but it’s already been used around the world (specifically Israel, Mexico, Italy, Russia and Taiwan), and informed reporting from BuzzFeed and Forbes to The Washington Post and BBC Radio. The project is the product of years of work, in particular that of Sunlight developer Lindsay Young.

But not all of that work was development. Indeed, a brutally large portion of work was hand-curating bad data. How bad? King Joffrey of bad data bad.

Image of world map on home page of Foreign Influence Explorer
Our new Foreign Influence Explorer tracker makes it easy to analyze filings at the Department of Justice. Click on the image to go to the page.

When Sunlight and our coalition partners were invited to meet with Associate Attorney General Tony West in April to discuss transparency initiatives, FARA reform was what Sunlight brought to the table. And, perhaps to some surprise, it has led to some tangible results.

This week, the Department of Justice released its third open government plan, and it specifically highlights reform targets that Sunlight and our coalition partners asked for. We haven’t parsed the whole (55-page) plan yet, so we don’t yet know whether the DOJ is taking seriously civil-society demands for things like better Freedom of Information Act policies and greater transparency in Office of Legal Counsel memos. However, suffice to say, we’re heartened that something as simple, easy and important as modernizing a valuable database (indeed, FARA is the only database that holds this information), is something we can, after a couple months of negotiation, be friends about.

This is the relevant outlay of FARA’s future from the plan: “In the process of implementing the Open Government Plan, the FARA Registration Unit, in conjunction with the National Security Division Information Technology Section, has begun to assess the feasibility of generating additional features to the current online portal, which will enable the public to search, sort, and print information from the database more easily. Over the next two years, the Department will continue to review the FARA website and electronic filing system, while soliciting reasonable and concrete suggestions and feedback from the public, and will work to make feasible and appropriate modifications to the database. Throughout this process, the Department will specifically investigate collecting and publishing registration information as structured data in a machine-readable format.”

We’ll be on top of tracking these goals — and hopefully the progress will be quick. And certainly, two years is an overly generous amount of time to achieve many of the listed changes.

It’s been some time since our initial meetings. And it will be some time before we have the concrete FARA reforms that will better enable Sunlight, reporters and the world to engage and scrutinize the immense amount of foreign money influencing American policies. But now we have reason to believe our calls for reform have been heard — something that often takes a far longer time to find.