WIP findings regarding Web censorship highlighted during FOIA hearing


Rep. Ayanna Pressley, a newly elected Massachusetts Democrat, cited website removals documented by the Web Integrity Project (WIP) at a hearing held by the House Committee on Oversight and Reform examining the state of the Freedom of Information Act under the Trump administration.

Pressley focused her questioning on Melania Ann Pustay, Director of the Office of Information Policy at the Department of Justice, which is tasked with helping federal agencies comply with FOIA. She cited removals documented by WIP including the takedown of an entire website about breast cancer from the Office on Women’s Health (OWH) domain, which featured links to information on low cost cancer screenings; the takedown of a page related to health in the lesbian and bisexual communities, also on the OWH site; and the removal from Medicare.gov of information related to the Affordable Care Act.

The congresswoman was pointed in her questioning about the removal of resources related to stalking and domestic violence from the website of the Department of Justice’s Office on Violence Against Women, first reported by Slate and documented in WIP’s new censorship tracker, Gov404. A number of links with information intended to help victims, prosecutors and law enforcement officers better deal with stalking risks were removed without notice in April of 2018.

“This is denying victims access to critical information that could determine their very life or death,” Pressley said of the removals, in an exchange with Pustay that occupied the entirety of her allotted five minutes.

Pustay declined to comment on removals on another agency’s site, and disputed Pressley’s suggestion that such changes would implicate FOIA’s “proactive disclosure rule,” but said she supported making available information in especially high demand.

“I don’t want to address a specific set of documents without knowing more about it,” Pustay said. “It wouldn’t be responsible of me to do so. But I absolutely agree that the reason for having proactive disclosures, and it’s why it’s such an important part of the FOIA, is to provide information that’s of interest to the public affirmatively, so that there isn’t a need to make a FOIA request.”

WIP itself entered into FOIA litigation last week, seeking correspondence and other records from HHS related to information removals on the the OWH website. After the agency failed to produce records for nearly a year, WIP and transparency nonprofit American Oversight filed suit to demand the requested documents.

Committee chair Elijah Cummings, Democrat from Maryland, had set the tone of the hearing with his opening statement when he said he had been “seeing far too much information being delayed and even withheld” under the Trump administration. Democrats mostly continued emphasizing historic backlogs. Republican members countered with their own questions designed to emphasize rising request volume, the pile of requests left over from the Obama administration, and what they contended is the politicized use of FOIA. (NOTE: One group singled out for criticism in that regard by Rep. Jim Jordan of Ohio was American Oversight.)

The finding Pressley cited can be found in our newly-launched web censorship tracker, Gov404.

Pressley’s exchange with Pustay can be seen in the clip below.