The FCC Should Avoid Regulatory CAPTCHA

This morning, James Grimaldi reported that Ajit Pai, chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, has told two U.S. Senators that he has proposed “to rebuild and re-engineer” the agency’s online electronic comment system “to institute appropriate safeguards against abusive conduct.” … Continue reading

US CIO says White House OMB will continue to explore selling public data

When I asked whether when or if it is acceptable for the United States government to charge companies, journalists and the public for government data, citing the example of paywalled immigration data, the chief information officer of the United States told me that “it’s part of the commercial equation” and that it was “actually a discussion point for the strategy” in her office in the White House Office of Management and Budget.

“I don’t have a specific answer,” Suzette Kent went on. “That is something that we’re looking at because there’s many tenets of it. There’s some data the government collects & document on behalf of the american public that may have the mode. There’s other types of data, that people are asking for. It’s a broad spectrum and one we are going to continue to explore.” Kent was speaking at the Data Coalition’s Data Demo Day on June 6 in Washington, DC. Video of the keynote speech she gave on data is embedded below:

When asked about the continued disclosure of data in PDFs and non-machine readable forms by federal agencies, despite President Barack Obama’s 2013 executive order, Kent said simply that she advocates compliance with every executive order and law and cited a Cross-Agency Priority goal to remove paper from agency systems.

Charging for public data is not a new topic or debate, but it has continued to be relevant during the Trump administration, when new concerns have grown about government data access, collection, and quality.

As I wrote back in 2014, local, state and national governments across the United States and around the world can and do charge for access to government data.

While some developers in Europe advocate charging for public sector information (PSI) as a way to ensure higher service levels and quality, adding fees does effectively charge the public for public access and has frequently been used as a barrier to press requests:

A city hall, state house or government agency charging the press or general public to access or download data that they have already paid for with their tax revenues, however, remains problematic.

It may make more sense for policy makers to pursue a course where they always make bulk government data available for free to the general public and look to third parties to stand up and maintain high quality APIs, based upon those datasets, with service level agreements for uptime for high-volume commercial customers.

Instead of exploring a well-trodden path, the United States government should follow the money and determine which data is agencies are currently charging for under public records requests or other means, using FOIA demand to drive open data disclosure.

United States opens public comment on commitments for a new national open government plan

Last fall, the U.S. government delayed formation of the fourth national action plan after committing to participation with a public consultation – despite historic regressions on open government across federal agencies under the Trump administration. This May, the White House quietly … Continue reading

USA to pursue co-creation of new national action plan on open government during Trump era

On May 29, senior officials from the White House Office of Management and Budget and the State Department confirmed that the United States will develop a new National Action Plan for Open Government for the Open Government Partnership this spring and summer, hosting two “co-creation” events in June and re-opening an online forum for public comments on Github. The State Department announced that the U.S. would be restarting the consultation process for building a new plan two weeks ago, at a separate event.

Today, in an email sent to the open government and civil society working group email listserv, GSA analyst Alycia Yozzi shared noted about the remarks delivered by the three officials, who were

  • Matt Lira, special assistant to the president for innovation policy and initiatives in the White House Office of American Innovation
  • Matt Bailey, acting policy unit chief, Office of the U.S. Chief Information Office, White House Office of Management and Budget
  • Chanan Weissman, special advisor in the Department of State

I’ve published the notes in full, below:

From: Alycia (Piazza) Yozzi
Date: Wed, May 30, 2018 at 5:20 PM
Subject: Save the Date & Notes from the 5/29 Inter-Agency Open Government Working Group Meeting
To: US Open Government <us-open-government@googlegroups.com>, OpenGov@listserv.gsa.gov

Hello OpenGov Community,

Yesterday morning, we convened the public U.S. inter-agency Open Government Working Group meeting with civil society in the offices of General Services Administration (GSA) and launched the process to develop and ultimately publish the Fourth Open Government Partnership (OGP) U.S. National Action Plan.

Thank you to those who joined us by phone and in-person. If you could not make it we’ve captured notes and I’m including them below.

SAVE THE DATE(s) – We will be hosting 2 Co-Creation Sessions to develop the 4th U.S. National Action Plan (NAP 4) and would love to have you join us. Space is limited so please register in advance. Passcode: OpenGov2018

You can register for either:

Thursday, June 14 from 9:00 am – 12:00pm

Thursday, June 21, from 1:00 pm – 4:00 pm

https://www.eventbrite.com/e/nap-4-working-session-registration-46585789350  Passcode:OpenGov2018

RESOURCES – Here are links to a few of the key resources mentioned at the meeting:

OpenGov Civil Society Meeting Minutes – 5/29/18

  • Matt Lira – Special Assistant in the White House Office of American Innovation
    • This Administration is committed to open government in the United States. Today we are here to renew the process of drafting and publishing the Fourth National Action Plan.
    • Empowering American citizens to hold their government accountable is a core function of any democracy and a priority for this Administration. A core objective is to ensure that our government is efficient, effective, and accountable to the American people.
    • We view this as a whole-of-team effort. The U.S. government will have a number of offices within the State Department, the GSA, and other agencies working on the fourth OGP National Action Plan.
    • We want to hear from you – citizen engagement and public participation is a critical part of this process. To help focus these discussions, the President’s Management Agenda will serve as a guiding document for our commitments. In particular, we will look forward to your input on the following areas of interest:
      • Modernizing Government Technology to Increase Productivity and Security
      • Leveraging Data as a Strategic Asset
      • Developing a Workforce for the 21st Century
    • Consistent with OGP’s feedback to all of its participants, we expect the fourth National Action Plan to include fewer – but more impactful – commitments relative to previous years.
  • Matt Bailey – Acting Policy Unit Chief, OFCIO, OMB
    • Highlighted that the OpenGov team really wants to get agencies and civil society together for the co-creation events, especially those that are able to make commitments for the new NAP.
    • We want to be able to have frank, open discussions with the public and the agencies that will be able to implement the recommendations.
    • Save the date for 6/14 and 6/21 for the co creation events. More information coming soon. [Note that 6/14 and 6/21 are now the confirmed dates.]
    • Cross-agency priority goals constitute the President’s Management Agenda (PMA) which, along with previous public input will serve as the starting point for this process
  • Chanan Weissman, Special Advisor, Department of State
    • Chanan provided a very brief overview of the soon-to-be released Independent Reporting Mechanism (IRM) Report on the Third U.S. National Action Plan and the status of the upcoming OGP Global Summit.
    • He thanked open gov representatives throughout the inter-agency for their feedback on the pre-publication version of the Report. Agencies provided 60 plus distinct comments, edits, clarifications, etc. back to OGP IRM researchers.
    • IRM cited three noteworthy highlights:
      • Modernization of access to information
      • Open science
      • Police open data
    • IRM Report’s five main recommendations included:
      • collaboration with the public,
      • fewer and more transformative commitments,
      • ethics reform,
      • service delivery and infrastructure, and
      • legislation branch involvement.
    • IRM Report information can be found online and out for release soon.
    • The OGP Global Summit in Tbilisi, Georgia on July 17-19. The last one was in Paris, France in December 2016. This year, they are streamlining the number of attendees (1000-1500 versus ~3,000 in years’ past) and limiting the number of panel discussion themes to three: anti-corruption, public service delivery, and civic participation.

Questions/Feedback

Q: There is a Google Group to share information and a Github account. Unfortunately, Github is not accessible to everyone. Can the group be sure to use the google group to share?

Yes. We will be sure to leverage the Google group to include the majority of people.

Q: Can you talk more about the OGP co-creation events?

We’d love to hear feedback on how to structure that process most effectively. We are still developing the structure but want it to be productive. Both events will be at GSA, one in the morning and one in the afternoon. We are considering ways to include folks who cannot be present in person

Regrettably, I could not attend nor participate in this public meeting due to illness, or I would have asked several questions.  Thanks to the GSA for taking these notes and circulating them online.

Whether the United States government actually follows through engaging the public almost a year later in an open process that involves that “collaboration of citizens, civil society, political and official champions and other stakeholders” is an open question that will be answered over the next month — but there’s ample reason to be skeptical, given political polarization, partisan rancor and low trust in government.

After historic regressions on open government, the Trump administration committed to continued participation in the partnership last fall, only to delay building a new plan after short, flawed public consultation.

Almost a decade ago, we saw what the Obama administration at least attempted to do with Change.gov and then the Open Government Initiative. Two government-hosted events in DC and a Github forum next month are not going to meet the more robust standards for public participation and co-creation that OGP has promulgated after years of weak consultations. The U.S. government can and must do better for this to be taken seriously by the public, press and politicians.

The Open Government Partnership was designed to be a platform that would give civil society an equal seat at the table. That means not just people voting on a pre-existing management agenda on a website or pre-populated commitments from closed workshops at agencies that require passwords to register, but getting commitments that are responsive to the great challenges that face American democracy into the plan, including ethics reforms.

In the Trump era, until we start seeing seeing federal agencies, Cabinet members, and the White House itself using social media, mobile devices, radio, and TV appearances to not only inform and engage the public but to incorporate public feedback into meaningful government reform proposals — including sitting down with journalists for interviews about the effort and its goals — unfortunately there’s little reason to trust that this newfound commitment to open government is serious.

Facebook’s new opaque political ads transparency site shows self-regulation isn’t enough

Alex_Howard_on_Twitter___So___Facebook_has_a_new_political_ad_transparency_site_https___t_co_EQoMMqDodq_You_can_t_get_to_it_unless_you_re_logged_into_Facebook__https___t_co_UbNjMZLbY

This past week, Facebook launched a new political ad transparency website. Facebook believes that “shining a light on ads” will increase transparency, which in turn “will lead to increased accountability & responsibility over time – not just for Facebook but advertisers as well.“

I think they’re right — which should be no surprise given my focus on advocating for more political transparency in Washington over the two years I spent at the Sunlight Foundation — but reviewing reports of unlabeled political ads is going to be hard.

Overall, this site is a welcome step towards more transparency, but misses the mark. The site only “exceeds expectations” if you think a search interface that exposes no underlying data is sufficient to inform the public and regulators.

In my initial assessment, I concur with journalists who found Facebook’s new political ad system is missing a lot, as ProPublica reported. (Please install ProPublica’s political ad collector so they can inform the public about how well Facebook’s tool actually works.)

https://platform.twitter.com/widgets.js

On the one hand, it was easy to use Facebook’s new archive of “ads with political content” – essentially a simple search tool for paid political ads that have run since May 7, 2018 – at least once I got on my laptop and logged into Facebook. I found recent ads that matched Trump, Clinton, gun control and corruption.

If you click on “see ad performance,” you can learn more about each ad.

If you click on the username, you arrive at the Page behind the ads. Unfortunately, there’s no tab for political ads or link to this archive. It’s hard to see how folks will find them, without it.

As I noted on Twitter, however, there’s one more critical wrinkle: you can’t get to the page unless you’re logged into Facebook!

This would be hilariously ironic, if it weren’t for the context of Russian interference and how Facebook handled it. Self-regulation is not enough.

As sociology professor Zeynep Tufecki noted, no one — whether member of the public, the press, watchdog, academic, regulator or legislator – should have to agree to Facebook’s Terms of Service and become a user to access political data.

To Facebook’s credit, the director of product at Facebook, Rob Leathern, responded publicly to Tufecki on Twittter, stating that this page is a first step:

“More ways are coming to make the ads with political content and information more accessible to people. One of those is an API, another is exploring opening the archive to people not on Facebook. We started with the Facebook community to see how they use the tool and gain feedback from third parties, including our newly-formed Election Commission. We’ll continue to update on our progress.”

If Facebook started with open data with no log-in, they could have gotten feedback from third parties like the Center for Responsive Politics or the public. No one should have to be part of Facebook’s “community” to understand who is buying electioneering on the platform, for whom, and what’s being shown.

As I commented to Leathern, if Facebook is only “exploring” making this archive open to people not on Facebook, then it is not implementing the Honest Ads Act, as its staff has claimed to Congress and the public. I asked Facebook to post a public ad file as bulk open data on the open Web.

Leathern told me that “we have prioritized getting the archive in the hands of people to use (as of today) + will follow up soon with an archive API. Thank you for the feedback, we are definitely listening.”

That’s good news, but not good enough.

Real transparency at Facebook will look like a public file of all paid political ads that are disclosed on a public website with bulk open data downloads and an API, none of which require the public to log into the site.

The good news is that I think Facebook understands this page as a start, not an end. In a post that closes matches what he told me, Leathern wrote that they’re “working closely” with a new “Election Commission” to launch an API for the archives.

It’s good news, but no deadline cited.

It’s hard for me not to be happy that Facebook is finally explicitly embracing political ad transparency in words and (some) deeds, including public soul searching about what constitutes a political ad and a policy.

That’s progress.

It’s just long overdue. Ultimately, elected representatives should be the ones to enact standards for transparency for political ads online after debate, not tech company executives.

Until Congress and other legislatures around the world empower regulators like Federal Election Commission by updating electioneering rules and enacting standards for disclaimers and disclosures, however, I’m glad to see positive actions.

I hope Facebook, its founder and its staff deliver on its most recent promises and their public obligations. Given past, current or predictable interference, opacity is unpatriotic.

Federal judge rules public officials blocking the public on Twitter violates the First Amendment

img_4058

When the president or others with access to his Twitter account block American citizens from following @realDonaldTrump based upon the viewpoints they express, it violates their First Amendment rights.

In a historic decision, a federal judge ruled today that it is unconstitutional for President Donald J. Trump to block his critics on Twitter, as portions of @realDonaldTrump account constitute a public forum, which means blocking them based on their political speech violates the First Amendment:

We hold that portions of the @realDonaldTrump account — the “interactive space” where Twitter users may directly engage with the content of the President’s tweets — are properly analyzed under the “public forum” doctrines set forth by the Supreme Court, that such space is a designated public forum, and that the blocking of the plaintiffs based on their political speech constitutes viewpoint discrimination that violates the First Amendment. In so holding, we reject the defendants’ contentions that the First Amendment does not apply in this case and that the President’s personal First Amendment interests supersede those of plaintiffs.

This is a historic win for the First Amendment and the public’s right to access official statements and participate in public discourse regarding those statements.

As I highlighted last year, tweets by @realDonaldTrump are official statements from the President, which means that the public has a right to equal access and participation around them, even when their speech is hosted on a private platform. The public interest argument was clear then:

“A president’s statements are not just made for people who voted for him or support his policies or politics.

Unfortunately, Trump is not alone: other local, state and federal politicians are also blocking their constituents on Twitter.

Doing so sends the wrong message to the public about whom they serve. Listening and responding to members of the public that they represent is a minimum expectation for public servants in any democratic state, whether those voices are raised in protest, petition, email, send letters or reply on social media. While there are practical challenges to making sense of millions of emails, tweets, call or letters, blocks are not the solution to filter failure.”

No President should block Americans from reading his official statements, replying or interacting with others here.

No other public servant should block constituents, either, from city councilors and alderman to judges, governors and mayors.

On Twitter, officials and politicians who have blocked constituents now consider policies to Mute accounts if someone is being vile or abusive, with transparency about guidelines and use. Users who abuse one another are already subject to accountability for violations of @Twitter rules, which could be reported by officials or civil society.

As the judge noted, addressing President Trump blocking people is legally tricky.

While we reject defendants’ categorical assertion that injunctive relief cannot ever be awarded against the President, we nonetheless conclude that it is unnecessary to enter that legal thicket at this time. A declaratory judgment should be sufficient, as no government official — including the President — is above the law, and all government officials are presumed to follow the law as has been declared.

President Trump should acknowledge the ruling and follow the law, unblocking everyone. Whether he’ll embrace such a change on his social platform of choice isn’r clear at all — especially given his refusal to follow security protocols for his iPhone, despite the risk of nation states spying on him.

In the wake of this ruling, the president should acknowledge the ruling in a video & tweeted post, work with Twitter to unblock everyone, and apologize for engaging in viewpoint-based discrimination and chilling the speech of his constituents, the American public.

But I doubt Trump will.

So, here’s a different idea. It would be an unprecedented move for an unprecedented presidency, but I hope Jack Dorsey and his board will seriously consider removing the Block feature from all official government accounts verified by Twitter.

If code is law and law is now encoded, one way for Twitter to embrace its DNA as a 21st century platform for free speech and make open, public access to official statements the default, putting pressure on Facebook, Google and others to follow.

Why it’s past time for governments to fix public comments online – and how

The Bot Wars, begun they have. Over the past two years, automated social media accounts and fraudulent regulatory filings have been used by anonymous parties to obscure public opinion, distort public discourse, and corrupt the integrity of rulemaking in the … Continue reading

VA rejects Freedom of Information Act request for missing open government plan

The VA is being neither open nor transparent about its missing open government plans or policies. On March 29, 2018, I made a Freedom of Information Act request to the United States Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) in which I … Continue reading