Today in OpenGov: Transparency in 2016, internet ad blind spots and California’s anti-eavesdropping bill


TRANSPARENCY AT CENTER STAGE: Both major party presidential nominees are being criticized across the political spectrum for failing to be open and transparent with voters. Unfortunately, “several of the norms we have for what the public should know are being violated,” says Sunlight’s interim executive director, John Wonderlich [CBS News]

PREVENTING THE NEXT WATERGATE: How can the presidential candidates grappling with transparency issues on the trail stop corruption before it begins if they’re elected? Start now, recommends Danielle Brian, the executive director of the Project on Government Oversight. Brian recommends embedding the principles of open government into their campaigns, disclosing information relevant voters and supporting accountability and whistleblowing in personnel matters. Like POGO, we don’t endorse candidates, but we definitely endorse Brian’s recommendations.[POGO]

LET THE PRESS IN: Here’s something else the campaigns could do: provide media access to fundraisers so that the public can hear what the candidates are telling donors.“You’re basically sowing the seeds of secrecy and making people suspicious about what is happening,” Sunlight’s Melissa Yeager told the Wall Street Journal. “It’s absolutely possible that they’re doing everything right, but we have no way of knowing.” [WSJ]

THE BLACK HOLE OF INTERNET ADS: Analyzing the latest campaign finance reports filed by the Trump campaign, Melissa Yeager focused on the largest expense: $18 million on “digital and online advertising,” with nearly half of that ($8.4 million) spent on Giles Parscale Inc. The trouble is that “we don’t know how much actually went to design or to ad placement.” She writes:

With television ads, we can see the placements in Federal Communications Commission filings. We know when ads run, how many were purchased and how much they cost. But with digital ads, we don’t know very much at all. The Federal Election Commission has said the internet expenses only need to be reported if they are placed for a fee on another website. (We’ve previously written about how this Internet blind spot could be troubling for disclosure.)

Until the Federal Election Commission and Congress mandate more specific, itemized disclosures of online spending, it’s going to be up to the public to try to suss out what’s happening. On that count, the New York Times has built a Web browser plugin, “AdTrack,” that enables readers to share the ads they’re seeing on Facebook. This effort is similar to ProPublica’s request to help them track how politicians target them in email, which they published in their “Message Machine” in 2012. Please participate!


  • The latest batch of emails released for public scrutiny sheds more sunlight on the relationship between Clinton Foundation donors and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and her aides while she was in office from 2009 to 2013. [Christian Science Monitor]
  • David Sirota broke down what we now know due to media investigations of the Clinton Foundation to date. [IB Times]
  • What’s missing? Hard evidence of “quid pro quo” corruption, as defined by the Supreme Court, between donations to the Clinton Foundation and actions taken by the Secretary in office. Implications otherwise, based upon the available evidence, are “pure fiction,” argue Michael Cohen.[Boston Globe]
  • Matthew Yglesias, who critiqued an Associated Press’ investigation that half of the 158 people whom State Department calendars showed Clinton had met with had ties to the Clinton Foundation, largely agreed with Cohen’s conclusion. [Vox]
  • While the AP story doesn’t provide evidence of wrongdoing, nor measure all of the meetings Clinton had as Secretary of State, it offers insight into judgment. Such transparency enables the public to understand a candidate’s record. Accountability leads to commitments to improve. What is demonstrable in the emails is that donors to the Clinton Foundation had greater access to Clinton and her aide Huma Abedin. However, this seemingly didn’t result in additional favors for contributors, and their requests were denied in some cases. [USA Today]
  • The continued focus on the role of the Foundation, along with former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort’s ties to Ukraine, has made foreign influence a hot topic on the campaign trail. [POGO]
  • Former President Bill Clinton has announced that the Clinton Foundation will shrink considerably should his wife be elected President, with only his daughter Chelsea remaining on the board. According to Buzzfeed News, “planning began in February to find outside organizations that can absorb much of the foundation’s work in order resolve potential conflicts of interest.” [NPR News]
  • Government watchdogs, including us, are generally applauding the Clinton Foundation’s shift, but are wondering why it took so long. Craig Holman, a government affairs lobbyist with Public Citizen, told Salon that scaling back operations after the election “certainly helps, and it’s long overdue, but it does come too late.” The answer to the ethics challenges here is for the campaign and a Clinton administration to be more open and transparent. As Holman suggested to Salon, the Office of Government Ethics “could easily run through the donor lists to the foundation, identify the potential conflicts of interests of any administration actions and require, or ask for full disclosure of the process.”   [Salon]
  • According to FEC filings, the Trump campaign has spent $1.1 million on legal fees to date – with $762,000 in July alone – and it’s not clear why. “Whatever the reason for the campaign’s lavish on lawyers, the flurry of legal bills is striking in the context of Trump’s overall spending when compared with other recent campaigns. The Trump campaign has spent a total of $89.5 million. Of that, $1.1 million has gone toward legal fees. That’s how much the Mitt Romney presidential campaign spent on legal fees over the course of the entire 2012 election, while spending $483 million overall on Romney’s losing bid.” [Mother Jones]
  • 20 years ago, all of the major candidates for president took federal matching funds to use in their campaigns. Today, only Green Party nominee Jill Stein does. According to Dave Weigel, the fund Congress established to provide public financing now has $314 million in reserve. As he notes, taking public financing means candidates have to abide by a spending cap. [Washington Post]


  • How does the federal ombudsman for the Freedom of Information Act at the Office of Government Information Services at the National Archives model transparency? Proactively disclose, disclose, disclose. You can find the office’s Annual Reports, Director’s Calendar, Congressional Testimony, OGIS Activities Calendar, Final Response Letters to CustomersStatements and Executive Correspondence and Mediation Program Performance Statistics on its website. [The FOIA Ombudsman]
  • According to anonymous US officials quoted by CNN, the FBI is investigating a series of attempted hacks targeting reporters at the New York Times and other news organizations by hackers “thought to be working for Russian intelligence.”  [NBC News]

    The intrusions, detected in recent months, are under investigation by the FBI and other US security agencies. Investigators so far believe that Russian intelligence is likely behind the attacks and that Russian hackers are targeting news organizations as part of a broader series of hacks that also have focused on Democratic Party organizations, the officials said.

    The Times said email services for employees are outsourced to Google. CNN requested comment from Google but didn’t receive comment. The FBI declined to comment. Times spokeswoman Eileen Murphy said the company had seen “no evidence” that any breaches had occurred of the Times’s internal systems. CNN’s report didn’t say that the Times internal systems were breached, but that reporters were targeted.

  • Facebook says its suspension of two libertarian group pages on was an error. [Buzzfeed]
  • An upcoming court case threatens whistleblower protections, warns the Project on Government Oversight. [POGO]
  • Why does that matter? Consider, for instance, how whistleblowers exposed contractors who sold defective helmets to the Defense Department. [GovExec]
  • Speaking of contractors, the Obama Administration has issued final guidance for the Fair Pay and Safe Workplaces executive order requiring additional compliance and transparency through disclosure. [Federal News Radio]

State and local

  • A bill backed by Planned Parenthood in California that would make it a crime to record a confidential conversation with a health provider is close to passage. Free speech advocates are raising constitutional concerns about what it would mean for publishers and journalists. It’s already illegal to intentionally eavesdrop in California. You can’t record a private conversation in person or on the phone without the consent of both parties in California. A.B. 1671 goes further by criminalizing the distribution of a specific kind of eavesdropping – secret videos, like the ones recorded at Planned Parenthood. Here’s the key section of the bill:

    “Section 632.01 is added to the Penal Code, to read: (a) (1)A person who violates subdivision (a) of Section 632 shall be punished pursuant to subdivision (c) (b) if the person intentionally discloses or distributes, in any manner, in any forum, including, but not limited to, Internet Web sites and social media, or for any purpose, the contents of a confidential communication with a health care provider that is obtained by that person in violation of subdivision (a) of Section 632. For purposes of this subdivision, “social media” means an electronic service or account, or electronic content, including, but not limited to, videos or still photographs, blogs, video blogs, podcasts, instant and text messages, email, online services or accounts, or Internet Web site profiles or locations.”

    While we share the ACLU and the Electronic Frontier Foundation’s concern about the precedent of criminalizing online distribution of materials from whistleblowers, confidential communications with health providers are some of the most private matters imaginable. They merit constitutional protections from disclosure. We hope California’s legislature protects speech and avoids adding liability while upholding important privacy principles. [Courthouse News]

  • A new effort to improve Oregon’s public records reform law is getting mixed reviews because it leaves in place hundreds of exemptions that enable state government to levy high fees for the public. [Bend Bulletin]

    “In an ideal world, members of the public should be able to gain access to public records at no cost at all,” said Charlie Hinkle, a retired partner at the Portland law firm Stoel Rives who specializes in public records law. “That is a core function of government, to act in the open, and therefore it is really a contradiction in terms to say we’re going to offer it in the open only if you pay us to do it.” … Sean Moulton, open government program manager at the Project on Government Oversight, said state and federal agencies can use loopholes or high fees allowed in open government laws to skirt transparency that could otherwise improve their performance.“When you uncover mismanagement, wasted resources, a program that just didn’t deliver or something even worse … that is understandably embarrassing for an agency,” Moulton said. “But uncovering those problems is the first step in closing loopholes, addressing weaknesses in agencies and making sure they perform better in the long term.”

  • Here’s a look at how Cincinnati’s open data releases are helping to spark collaboration between police and community groups. [FoxTrot Code]
  • Gerrymandering has enabled politicians to choose their electorates by drawing convoluted district maps. Can the state save American democracy? [New York Times]
  • Nextdoor is rolling out changes to its private social network that the company hopes will mitigate the racial profiling issues that have bedeviled the platform. [Buzzfeed]


  • The Open Government Partnership is convening “strategy dialogues” to discuss the next phase of its work, which the initiative wants to be “co-created” around the world. [OGP]
  • OGP’s weekly roundup of world news related to open government is a useful snapshot of the space. [OGP]
  • New Zealand is seeking feedback on its next national action plan for open government. [OGPNZ]
  • Criminals and corrupt police have planted evidence on people for centuries. Here’s the 21st century version: a highly sophisticated entity planted documents on the computer of Turkish investigative journalist Barış Pehlivan and tried to control the machine remotely. He was subsequently accused of terrorism by Turkey and spent 19 months in jail. [Motherboard]
  • There’s failing the public interest balance test for publishing sensitive government data, and then there’s this: the Associated Press found that Wikileaks has leaked the personal information of hundreds of people online since last August. “In the past year alone, the radical transparency group has published medical files belonging to scores of ordinary citizens while many hundreds more have had sensitive family, financial or identity records posted to the web. In two particularly egregious cases, WikiLeaks named teenage rape victims.” [AP]
  • As Steven Aftergood noted, commenting on the situation, the “publication of information is not always an act of freedom. It can also be an act of aggression or oppression.” In 2011, asked about Wikileaks, World Wide Web founder Tim Berners-Lee said that “open government” is data about a country which “is not personally identifiable information about individuals. It does not have privacy issues associated with it. And it does not include military or state secrets.” [Huffington Post]


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