Today in OpenGov: Bear or bot?


In today's edition, we sit down with Seattle's open data program manager, the Department of Commerce is told it can't charge $13,000 per year for access to data that should be public, John Bolton leveraged his super PAC for advantage in Trump's Washington, China moves towards a novel surveillance technique, and more. 

states and cities

The City of Seattle’s Information Technology department, home to the open data program. Photo via CTO of Seattle WA.
  • Seattle, Washington works to balance openness and privacy in a threatening world. Sunlight's Katya Abazajian and Alex Dodds sat down with David Doyle, the City of Seattle’s open data program manager for a discussion about how the city is meeting its open government commitment while managing privacy risks. (Sunlight Foundation)
  • California considers legislation to force tech companies to identify bots. "California has proposed legislation that would require social platforms like Facebook Inc. and Twitter Inc. to identify automated accounts, or bots, amid a push by state lawmakers to police the technology companies that have proven vulnerable to manipulation and the spread of fake news." (Bloomberg) Sunlight says? In 2017, we suggested to tech companies that, if they keep allowing bots, they should add a registry to identify them. We're glad to see that California is considering a similar policy. 
  • This new database tracks state campaign finance laws over time. "The database covers all of the states’ campaign finance laws every two years since 1996. It is designed for everything from interactive and visualized lookups to downloadable datasets." Learn more in the Campaign Finance Institute's press release or check out the tool for yourself right here.
  • Maryland governor settles lawsuit with ACLU, must implement a new social media policy that doesn't include blocking users and deleting critical comments. "Maryland Governor Larry Hogan allegedly had a habit of blocking Facebook users and deleting comments when people criticized him, but a lawsuit has forced him to adopt a more open social media policy. Four Maryland residents sued the Republican governor in a US District Court in August 2017, with help from the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Maryland. The ACLU announced yesterday that a settlement has been finalized, requiring Hogan to implement a new social media policy within two weeks." (Ars Technica)

washington watch

  • Judge tells Department of Commerce it has to release datasets under FOIA, not charge $13,000 per year for access. David Yanofsky tells the story of his FOIA request for datasets "maintained by The US Department of Commerce’s International Trade Administration (ITA). They don’t just tally US visitors by their origin, but also by age, residency, port of entry, visa type, and initial destination." The ITA had previously charged $13,000 for a year of access to each dataset and were pushing to avoid releasing it under FOIA, despite the fact that almost no one was willing to pay them for it. Last week, Yanofksy writes, "a federal district court judge says I’m entitled to that data—the only near-comprehensive records of people coming to the US—for the same fees afforded any other Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request." (Quartz)
  • The Sinclair Broadcast Group spends heavily, but not exclusively, on Republican candidates. "While not a household name, Sinclair controls almost 200 television stations, reaches an estimated 38 percent of Americans’ homes — and wants more. When it comes to political money, Sinclair-related contributions have generally skewed Republican for more than two decades — with some notable exceptions, according to a Center for Public Integrity analysis of campaign finance data from the Federal Election Commission and nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics." (Center for Public Integrity)
  • Politicians are increasingly leveraging "officer-controlled nonprofits" to take advantage of dark money. "Like so-called “buddy PACs” – unlimited spending groups that support a single candidate during campaign season – the new must-have accessory for successful politicians is the officeholder-controlled nonprofit. These entities, launched after the campaigning is over, can raise unlimited amounts in secret donations to spend on promoting officeholders and their agendas. And they are gaining popularity among elected officials at every level of government." (Brennan Center for Justice)
  • The Department of Education IG asked if it could prosecute "leaks" of unclassified information. Journalist Peter Sterne explained, "The Department of Education’s Office of Inspector General considered trying to prosecute people for leaking unclassified information to the press, only to conclude that there’s no law against that yet…"


  • New research suggests that "fake news" may have had a real impact on the 2016 election. "The study from researchers at Ohio State University finds that fake news probably played a significant role in depressing Hillary Clinton's support on Election Day. The study, which has not been peer-reviewed but which may be the first look at how fake news affected voter choices, suggests that about 4 percent of President Barack Obama's 2012 supporters were dissuaded from voting for Clinton in 2016 by belief in fake news stories." (Washington PostPolitical scientists like Dartmouth professor Brendan Nyhan are skeptical of the study, however, questioning causality and highlighting the complexity of the election. Nyhan went into more detail in this New York Times piece, which we recommend you read. 
  • How John Bolton's super PAC gave him a leg up in President Trump's Washington. "The John Bolton Super PAC ran ads, doled out campaign contributions and endorsed candidates for five years, all in the name of helping elect defense hawks to office. But perhaps its greatest purpose was reflected in its name: It served as a hype machine for Bolton, boosting his image and political views." (POLITICO)
  • 17 states, 7 cities, and the U.S. Conference of Mayors team up to sue over Census citizenship question. "A group that includes 17 states, seven cities and the U.S. Conference of Mayors is suing the Commerce Department and the Census Bureau over efforts to include a question about U.S. citizenship on the upcoming 2020 census." (POLITICO)
  • EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt circumvented White House to give raises to two top aides. "In early March, Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt approached the White House with a request: He wanted substantial pay raises for two of his closest aides. The aides, Sarah Greenwalt and Millan Hupp, were part of the small group of staffers who had traveled with Pruitt to Washington from Oklahoma, where he had served as attorney general…Because both women were political appointees, he needed the White House to sign-off on their new pay. According to a source with direct knowledge of the meeting, held in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, staffers from the Presidential Personnel Office dismissed Pruitt’s application. The White House, the source said, declined to approve the raises. So Pruitt found another way." (The Atlantic)
  • Meanwhile, Pruitt tried to keep most news networks out of announcement on revised emissions standards. "As questions swirled over whether or not he can hold onto his administration post, embattled Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt appeared calm on Tuesday as he touted the agency's decision to revise greenhouse gas emissions standards for automobiles. But most reporters who cover the agency weren't in the room, and cameras were nearly non-existent…EPA had attempted to allow television camera access to Fox News without informing the other four networks: CNN, ABC, NBC and CBS. Fox alerted the networks and a pool was established allowing networks equal access to the event." (CNN)

around the world

Public domain photo via Pixabay.
  • New Chinese surveillance program will use TVs and smartphones to track citizens. "Communities in rural China are facing a new generation of surveillance technology that interconnects citizens’ everyday activities and interests with their government's ever-growing appetite for monitoring its population. The system, known as “Sharp Eyes”, relies on technological measures — and on the idea that people should be willing to monitor and report on their neighbors, friends and even family members." (Global Voices)
  • Slovakian youth lead pro-democracy protests. "In recent weeks, Slovakia has experienced massive protests at a scale unseen since the fall of the communist regime in 1989. The protests have been organized throughout the country by young people in their early 20s, many of whom haven’t been engaged politically before. In fact, many of the youth now protesting were born into democracy and barely remember the fight against the authoritarian regime of the late 90s, let alone life under the Soviet-aligned government that came before it." (NDI DemocracyWorks Blog)
  • Facebook likely won't extend new European privacy protections outside of the EU. "Facebook Inc…Chief Executive Mark Zuckerberg said on Tuesday that he agreed 'in spirit' with a strict new European Union law on data privacy but stopped short of committing to it as the standard for the social network across the world…As Facebook reels from a scandal over the mishandling of personal information belonging to millions of users, the company is facing demands to improve privacy and learn lessons from the landmark EU law scheduled to take effect next month." (Reuters)
  • Malaysia makes dangerous moves towards banning "fake news." "On Monday, the lower house of Parliament passed a bill outlawing fake news, the first measure of its kind in the world. The proposal, which allows for up to six years in prison for publishing or circulating misleading information, is expected to pass the Senate this week and to come into effect soon after…What qualifies as fake news, however, is ill defined. Ultimately, the government would be given broad latitude to decide what constitutes fact in Malaysia." (New York Times)


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