The future of the Open Government Partnership depends on White House leadership

The following is a brief prepared for civil society leaders in the United States considering how or whether to participate in the Open Government Partnership, a multi-stakeholder initiative launched a decade ago.

Executive Summary

There is a bonafide opportunity for advocates to push the Biden administration to connect good government, anti-corruption, freedom of information, press freedom, civic literacy, and participatory democracy together in a cohesive national strategy, but only if good government groups work in coalition to refuse to participate without concrete actions by the White House prior to the Summit.

As with other voluntary multilateral stakeholder initiatives, the future success of the Open Government Partnership will depend upon the direct involvement by President Biden, partnerships with media (and perhaps tech) companies, and “going big” on transformative commitments that will excite the imagination of the American public and review faith in the relevance of participation in these kinds of governance processes. Small, technocratic initiatives will not inspire or engage a polarized, angry population rife with disinformation in a low trust environment.

While this doesn’t mean that meaningful regulatory, administrative, policy, or personnel commitments won’t be on the table, involving Congress in reforming itself and enacting reforms remains paramount for both domestic relevance of the Open Government Partnership and enduring changes.

To rebuild badly damaged global credibility on good governance and democracy, this White House will need to acknowledge past mistakes and commit to working to pass reforms and invest in personnel and policy changes, from open justice initiatives to ethics reforms. Delegating a civil servant in the USA to ask for feedback on broken commitments was not a good start.

Background

For those unfamiliar, the Open Government Partnership (OGP) Partnership is a global multi-stakeholder initiative (MSI) that acts as a collective governance mechanism for national governments and their publics to create commitments towards transparency and accountability reforms and tracks implementation. As in other MSIs, participants voluntarily make collective commitments towards achieving a given goal. The Paris Accord on climate change may be the MSI best known to the public,

Past and current OGP commitments have included reforms aimed at increasing public access to information, improving good governance, reducing corruption and improving service delivery using new technologies, and engaging the public in public business and processes. This FAQ lays out the history of the initiative and organization up to 2018. 

After the OGP went dormant in the United States after the USA published a weak plan in 2019, it ceased to be relevant to domestic politics or US government, for reasons explored further below.. While other democratic nations and their leaders continued to participate and engage their publics, the Trump White House stopped making public statements about OGP and the plan in 2019 after a consultation that failed to meet OGP’s “co-creation” standards for public participation. 

The conclusion from a decade of experience with OGP is that it doesn’t work in the USA — and likely other nations — if a given nation’s leader is corrupt, untrustworthy, & fundamentally anti-democratic. If a president doesn’t believe in democracy and attacks it, adherence in a voluntary multi-stakeholder initiative amounts to gauze in a gale.

Without Presidential leadership and high expectations for elected officials to hold themselves accountable to various norms of transparency and accountability, from disclosing tax returns to acknowledging and supporting the role of a free press to standards for veracity in public statements regarding policy, public health, or science, OGP doesn’t work in the USA – or presumably elsewhere. 

What good governance watchdog or other civil society entity who participated in the co-creation process view OGP as a key point of leverage with the Trump White House or US government? 

Who saw OGP as a point of leverage to stop the Trump administration from rolling back past OGP commitments or voluntary transparency, from visitor logs to the Extractive Industry Transparency Initiative? 

The USA stayed in OGP thanks to the efforts of former White House official Matt Lira and many US civil servants, which enabled it to continue to operate in countries where the necessary condition for good faith participation existed: a world leader who believed in democracy as both a principle and practice. 

In 2021, OGP is being led by career civil servants at GSA and State, not a senior official, much less the President. It and its processes are irrelevant to Congress, where fundamental transparency and accountability reforms originate in the USA. Few Americans have ever heard of OGP, much less participated in any of the “co-creation workshops.” When OGP made the news because of President Obama’s involvement, US outlets tended to be skeptical, or simply ignore it.

Major, mainstream US news media outlets still do not regard OGP as relevant to power or policy. For the most part, most of the press remains unaware of OGP after a decade, as has most of Congress. Negative IRM reports or letters don’t generate headlines or political pressure in the USA: blockbuster investigations, lies, corruption, and attempted self coups do. 

The Opportunity Ahead

In the spring of 2021, the Open Government Partnership hosted a virtual event discussing what it would take to revive the US process with the new administration. The paper is online. A recording of that forum is here:

It’s possible that OGP process could move forward in a healthy, productive way in a domestic context if the United States government and foundations make a series of policy and personnel commitments, but that hasn’t happened in the months since.

A key overarching conclusion from the U.S. experience with OGP comes through from this paper, though. Voluntary multi-stakeholder initiatives don’t work if a given nation’s leader is corrupt, untrustworthy, and fundamentally anti-democratic. 

If a president doesn’t believe in democracy and attacks it, adherence in a voluntary multi-stakeholder initiative amounts to gauze protecting a porch in a gale. If there’s no good faith partner on the other side of the table that civil society organizations can depend on to respond to letters, implement reforms and commit to meaningful significant commitments – or those they do not want to implement – then participating in OGP co-creation could actively harm other efforts because it creates the imprimatur of good governance under the administration without its reality.

That’s openwashing, not open government.

Under those circumstances, OGP’s steering committee should take action to suspend a nation’s participation instead of signing off on extended deadlines or allowing an administration’s claims of good faith participation to remain unchecked when co-creation guidelines and policy regression are so clearly violated. 

That didn’t happen in the USA in recent years. OGP’s leadership and members of the steering had little to say about the presidency’s descent into authoritarianism and illiberalism until after President Trump left office, and the Internal Review Mechanism pulled its punches regarding the administration going silent and increasingly regressing over time.

Key Steps to Building Relevance

If the Biden administration now intends to build US participation in OGP “back better,” there are a series of steps it could take to rebuild trust with the American public, civil society organization, and leaders who would be partners in a restored dialogue, starting with restoring past commitments and showing open government is a presidential priority. 

First, President Biden needs to reify the relevance of the Open Government Partnership to reform efforts and ask Americans to participate. 

There is no replacement for a world leader’s involvement, much less the Presidential leadership, and there are endless opportunities offered by this historic moment. For instance, Vice President Kamala Harris could lead be leading an open justice initiative modeled on her work at California, developing a national clearinghouse of criminal justice data, like the use of force by police or misconduct files, and extended the FOIA to private prisons and government contractors. Restoring wh.gov/open is a good symbolic shift here.

Second, involve major media outlets and social media platforms. 

The US has a vibrant independent press and powerful watchdogs that use FOIA and investigative journalism to reveal official corruption paired with an independent judiciary that mandated disclosures after lawsuits. No open government advocate was able to use OGP as a platform to make the Trump White House ethical or the President transparent and accountable. 

No one in the DC media ecosystem, national broadcast or print media seemed to care about OGP going dormant in the USA, including what the Internal Review Mechanism said about the Trump administration — unlike other nations. Sycophantic far-right media outlets aligned with the administration echoed its propaganda about transparency, while the most corrupt administration in American history made a mockery of US participation in global good governance. 

OGP’s legitimacy and relevance rely not just upon the consent of the governed but also on the public’s participation. In addition to online ideation platforms like Ideascale or Github or a rebooted White House petition platform, the White House will need to do more than just use US government media assets to promote its initiatives. The administration needs to “meet Americans where we are,” online and off. 

Global media and tech partners will put critical pressure on the US government to perform better to have any shot at regaining global leadership position on open government. Media involvement will give civil society organizations more leverage to extract commitments that the Biden administration doesn’t want to make or implement. OGP can’t act as a platform for non-governmental entities without the leverage presidential involvement and public awareness provide.

Involving tech companies that profit from surveillance capitalism will carry profound complexities, especially while they’re under scrutiny by regulators for privacy and anti-trust violations, but injecting prompts to participate into social feeds would dramatically increase participation and awareness. Their self-interest in being seen as partners in good governance could make such partnerships viable.

Third, involve Congress and the judiciary branch

The OGP itself recommends parliamentary involvement: “Some of the key aspirations of the open government movement – placing citizens back at the heart of government, defending democracy, protecting & promoting civic space – simply cannot be met by the executive alone: they require legislative support.”

If President Biden and Vice President Harris invest in this partnership, it could be a meaningful platform for civil society to achieve limited reforms within the executive branch’s discretion, from executive orders to policies. If the administration expanded it to other branches of US government, however, it would be far more transformative. USAG Garland backing legislation on access to reporters’ records is what such a commitment could look like in practice. (Garland’s meeting with leaders from media organizations is in of itself both evidence of good faith and the irrelevance of OGP to the current mechanisms through which power is being wielded, checked, or negotiated.)

If there are reforms the Biden administration or the Supreme Court don’t want to adopt or adapt in OGP,  however, civil society groups and the public might understandably limit participation and continue to focus limited capacity towards reform through direct advocacy in Congress, regulatory agencies, and the White House.

Four, create a multi-stakeholder network.

OGP works better in countries where there is a vibrant civil society coalition, like the United Kingdom and Canada. The USA never did, relying instead on the coalition capacity of OpenTheGovernment. If the White House is serious about co-creation commitments and being accountable for delivering, part of re-engaging needs to include working with philanthropies and nonprofits to establish such a network and then lead, with Cabinet officials meeting with advocates regularly and internal working groups coordinating cross-agency priority goals on FOIA, rulemaking, and challenges.

Finaly, go big on good governance

For instance, Congress established a beneficial ownership registry at the US Treasury in the NDAA and then overrode Trump’s veto to enact it at the end of 2020 —  but the legislation did not make it a public registry. Committing to open beneficial ownership data like the United Kingdom did in 2013, after studying and mitigating the issues other nations have had, would be significant. hat would be genuinely transformative for anti-corruption efforts not only in the USA, but around the world.

If the USA and UK’s financial industry & regulators collaborated on a commitment to combine, clean, and maintain a global registry, many other nations might see concrete gains and measurable impact on corruption from open data disclosure, re-use, and applications. Anti-corruption and open justice are obvious transformative commitments.

So too would making federal court records free by modernizing the PACER system through legislation, reforming the classification system and investing in declassification and redaction technology and personnel. Or both Houses of Congress committing to robust, distributed remote participation, from bill drafting and markups to oversight and nomination hearings to voting. The Accountability 2021 Agenda has many more options: https://www.accountability2021.org/

Conclusion

Civil society and government leaders at OGP’s recent “community briefing” in October 2021 did not fully grapple with these issues when challenged. The absence of White House officials at the briefing calls into question whether the Biden Harris Administration understands how much trust in the relevance or utility of OGP to enacting reforms proportionate to the glaring flaws in American democracy has been eroded within the good governance community in the USA.

For the Open Government Partnership to have any realistic shot at being relevant to domestic politics or reform in the United States, this White House has to be willing to make commitments it does not want to make, and then show progress towards implementing them, every month. It must literally build OGP back better.

As the Biden administration cannot diplomatically extricate itself from participation in this global multilateral initiative, however, there is an opportunity for the good governance watchdogs, press freedom groups, and open government advocates to use its inability to walk away as leverage to extract good faith evidence of commitments to come back to round tables to craft a new plan.

If OGP is going to be relevant, the next “co-creation” of an open government plan can’t just be an opaque, inside-the-Beltway affair conducted under Chatham House rules.

It must not not exclude good governance groups, leaders, advocates, and activists from workshops and meetings, instead engaging Americans from every state and territory. 

President Biden and Vice President Harris need to be directly involved in committing to major, transformative reforms to transparency and accountability and engaging Americans about it.

Ambassador Rice will be in a key role ensuring follow-through domestically, as will Attorney General Garland, Secretary Yellen, Secretary Blinken, and USAID Director Power. Running OGP out of the State Department as a diplomatic initiative like other multi-stakeholder initiatives, at present, can’t become the norm. 

Unless a presidency invests OGP with importance and legitimacy through participation and acknowledgement, it has no formal binding power. It’s all soft pressure through the need to perform in the eyes of other nations and the public if there is a high-profile global event. 

The upcoming OGP Summit and Democracy Summit will be one of the few points of leverage at which civil society can exert real pressure to get concessions by acting in unison to condition participation on commitments or evidence of meeting a commitment, as expressed in a policy or personnel or disclosure change.

Civil society groups should use maximal leverage to refuse to come to the table until the Biden-Harris administration takes action on the subject of various coalition letters. There is a useful precedent in Mexico, where groups left in protest after government surveillance.

These could include some or all of the following executive actions advocates view as meaningful evidence of good faith: 

  • Issue executive orders on Freedom of Information and open government
  • Appoint a senior official accountable for ethics and governance
  • Reboot the White House petitions platform
  • Issue overdue guidance for implementation of the Open Government Data Act
  • Implement the recommendations on transparency for the nuclear stockpile from the Public Interest Declassification Board 
  • Acknowledge and respond to coalition letters regarding good governance reforms and set up ongoing roundtables. (“The process is the product” here.)
  • Disclose virtual visitor logs from the White House
  • Have the Office of Information Policy at the Department of Justice issue a “release to one, release to all” policy for FOIA

If the administration won’t commit to enacting meaningful reforms —  like on ethics, as OGP’s Joseph Foti recommended so many times — or those they do not want to implement (making visitor logs permanent, surveillance reform, or beneficial ownership transparency), then participating in OGP co-creation could actively harm other efforts because it creates the imprimatur of good governance under the administration without its reality. 

To avoid being embarrassed on the international stage, President Biden and Vice President Harris shouldn’t just acknowledge the letters on open government and FOIA they’ve received, but take concrete actions, now, that show that their administration can be trusted to honor OGP’s co-creation standards in 2022 and implement commitments in the years to come.

Biden administration asks for comment on broken commitments on open government

WH.gov/open is still a 404.

In an email posted to a newsgroup addressed to the “open government community,” the General Services Adminstration asked for comment on which of the past commitments the United States has made to the Open Government Partnership (OGP) should be submitted for a “people’s choice award” at an international summit in December.

At a basic level, the problem with this outreach is many of the dozen listed commitments are of questionable value, or have been rescinded.

For instance, the United States withdrew from a flagship commitment when the Trump White House withdrew from the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative in 2017. The Institutional Review Mechanism should not have listed it.

“Amendments to the Freedom of Information Act” were not achieved through OGP: the Department of Justice lobbied against reforms, and the Obama White House did not push for reform, resulting in a weaker bill.

The Trump administration censored open climate data and pushed out climate scientists who collected and published it, instead of “promoting” it. The former president directed hatred towards a whistleblower who came forward about the president’s corruption, instead of strengthening whistleblower protections. And so on.

The fact that the IRM put these commitments forward at all places considerable doubt on whether the IRM researchers are accurate arbiters of US government performance or record. It also casts doubt on whether the Biden administration is willing or able to be an honest broker regarding what’s happened to open government initiatives or policies over the past decade. The tepid criticism in the most recent IRM report on the U.S. government’s record on open government, from 2019, did not acknowledge the Trump administration’s attacks on transparency, much less the impact on public trust that would later be so devastating in the pandemic.

At a higher level, however, the fundamental problem in September 2021 is that the Biden White House has not publicly or privately re-engaged with many of the good governance watchdogs and open government advocates that have repeatedly called on the administration to act on the reforms.

To echo an indictment of the last administration’s “opacity by obscurity,” not introducing this call for comment on open government commitments at a press conference and taking questions on it falls far short of the bare minimum we should expect of the United States government. If it’s not issued in the the Federal Register or blogged about at WhiteHouse.gov, why should Americans take it seriously?

That’s a compounding mistake. Instead of rebuilding the broken trust between US government, the people it serves, and the reformers who seek to strengthen it, the White House is not using its convening power or capacity to be publicly responsive to the legitimate concerns of watchdogs exhausted by years of devolving good governance.

There is no reason that GSA Administrator Robin Carnahan, an honorable human with a long record of public service, should not have done so, save that it would be more appropriate if it was coming from the White House. President Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris have had little to say or do regarding the multi-stakeholder initiative that the current administrator for U.S. Agency for International Development once called President Obama’s “signature good governance initiative.”

After the most corrupt administration in U.S. history showed the dire weaknesses in a system built upon adherence voluntary democratic norms, that has been a profound disappointment for anyone that hoped to see more than a return to the mixed record of the Obama administration. President Biden and Vice President Harris should be holding U.S. government accountable with executive action.

They should be marshaling support for legislative and regulatory reforms externally, & making it clear to faithful civil servants and allies internally that this White House is committed to cultural changes as well, after years fear and chaos, by putting officials on the record and appointing senior ethics officials.

They also should be honest about how past reforms came to pass, what came of them, and what has happened to them since. Neither Data.gov nor USASpending.gov were achieved as the “result” of OGP. White House petitions were ignored under the Trump administration and have not been brought back by this one. So why are all three listed on the GSA’s open government page?

It’s worth noting that this void in public engagement itself violates the final commitment in the most recent National Action Plan for Open Government, which was to Expand Public Participation in Developing Future U.S. National Action Plans:

“Citizen engagement and public participation area among the most important elements of the NAP co-creation process. During the development of this NAP4,everyday Americans provided some of the most thoughtful and engaging ideas. As we begin to contemplate a fifth national action plan, we will prioritize including a more geographically diverse and diffuse representation of citizen stakeholders in the development of the document.We will aim to conduct a series of consultation sessions, in-person meetings,and livestreamed discussions around the country to generate ideas, encourage public input, and engage in conversations with the most important stakeholder–the American public.”

None of that happened after the plan was released in early 2019.

An administration genuinely “committed to transparency” and good governance can and must build back better, from the Office of Management and Budget issuing guidance on the Open Government Data Act (and enforcing it) to shifting its posture on declassification and the Freedom of Information Act.

It’s time for this White House to provide much more than diplomatic cover at the State Department for the civil servants who kept both the spirit and practice of open government alive over the past four years.

There’s no shortage of good ideas, only the political will and personnel capacity dedicated to implementing them.

On Juneteenth and Independence Day, the USA celebrates freedom, liberty, and justice

Congress has designated June 19 as a national holiday, Juneteenth. President Biden will sign the bill into law today, and as a result, tomorrow will be a federal holiday for many federal workers. It is another step on a long journey towards our nation recognizing and grappling with a dark history of slavery, realism, prejudice, and enduring inequity. Someday, we will arrive together at truth, reconciliation, and restorative justice.

In 2021, we will recognize a historic moment in America’s story.

On Juneteenth, we will celebrate the emancipation of African-Americans after the Civil War.

On Independence Day, we will celebrate declaring independence from Great Britain.

On each day, our union can stand united by a common creed: all humans are created equal, with unalienable rights to life, liberty, & the pursuit of happiness.

We cannot say yet that we have upheld those rights for all in 2021, but that is the right standard to strive for together as states formed into a union, like equal justice before the law and freedom from hunger, fear, hatred, or want.

American young democracy remains flawed, but celebrating the end of slavery will help remind us all of who we have been and what this nation could yet become: a thriving, multiracial, pluralistic liberal democracy based upon a Constitution.

The USA remains a fragile, messy experiment in self governance, not yet even three centuries old, under threat by enemies both foreign and domestic. And yet, the arc of American’s history is still being bent towards justice by our votes and active citizenship.

May we all find common cause in preserving and defending our union for generations yet to come on Juneteenth and Independence Day, united as one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.

To build back better, The Biden House should release virtual visitor logs

The steps the Biden White House has taken on transparency taken are meaningful and welcome, but insufficient. They need to keep showing their work by opening Cabinet meetings & disclosing info, and emphasize being open by default isn’t just an option, but an obligation.

To put it another way, the Biden administration’s vocal commitments to transparency, restoration of press briefings & recognition of the role of journalists are profoundly welcome, necessary steps, but remain wholly insufficient to closing the yawning public trust deficit in the US government that existed before President Obama took office and grew much worse after four years of Trump’s official lies. That’s why transparency advocates have repeatedly asked the Biden administration to to take swift action, from the Freedom of Information Act to declassification and legal secrecy.

It’s not enough to put information online or put press secretaries and senior officials in front of the press, though both of those are profoundly welcome, or to stop attacking the credibility of journalists with lies.

As I told Politico, the Biden administration is doing worse, relative to Obama, given how aggressive, risky, and unprecedented some of the things they were doing online were in January 2009 were, particularly social media, and take questions online. (Press Secretary Psaki is dabbling in it, but it’s limited.)

Though obviously Twitter, Faceook, YouTube & other social media were used to go around the press and evade adversarial questioning by both administrations — and went pretty far into official channels being used to spread misinformation and disinformation under Trump — releasing information directly to the public using these platforms does find us “where we are.”

More transparency can and will be weaponized against them, as visitor logs were against the Obama administration, but rebuilding trust will require intentional investment and leadership on the world stage and around the USA, where the President and Vice President lean into tough questions and adhere to high standards of veracity in their public statements and those of the White House.

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How to invest in closing America’s “information voids” and digital divides

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(Graphic by New York Times)

In the same way that poor diets affect our physical health, America’s infodemic is being fueled by poor information diets. About 2,100 newspapers have folded since 2004, driving a ~58% decline in newsroom employment.

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Digital outlets have not replaced the jobs or journalism reporters produced and editors verified.

Now, the New York Times reports thatpink slime” outlets are filling the information voids left behind, with the emergence of pay-for-play digital outlets that launder partisan attacks for a few dollars an article and digital duopoly of Facebook and Google dominates the digital advertising markets.

None of this is new nor, in 2020, can we really say that no one saw this coming.

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Clay Shirky was brutally honest about the fate of the newspapers back in 2014, after he “thought about the unthinkable” in 2009.

In an essay that accurately predicted the ongoing trend in the industry, Shirky asked the crucial question that keeps people who believe democracies depend on a robust, independent free press to inform publics engaging in self-governance: “who covers all that news if some significant fraction of the currently employed newspaper people lose their jobs?”

His answer remains instructive:

Society doesn’t need newspapers. What we need is journalism. For a century, the imperatives to strengthen journalism and to strengthen newspapers have been so tightly wound as to be indistinguishable. That’s been a fine accident to have, but when that accident stops, as it is stopping before our eyes, we’re going to need lots of other ways to strengthen journalism instead.

When we shift our attention from ’save newspapers’ to ’save society’, the imperative changes from ‘preserve the current institutions’ to ‘do whatever works.’ And what works today isn’t the same as what used to work.

We don’t know who the Aldus Manutius of the current age is. It could be Craig Newmark, or Caterina Fake. It could be Martin Nisenholtz, or Emily Bell. It could be some 19 year old kid few of us have heard of, working on something we won’t recognize as vital until a decade hence. Any experiment, though, designed to provide new models for journalism is going to be an improvement over hiding from the real, especially in a year when, for many papers, the unthinkable future is already in the past.

For the next few decades, journalism will be made up of overlapping special cases. Many of these models will rely on amateurs as researchers and writers. Many of these models will rely on sponsorship or grants or endowments instead of revenues. Many of these models will rely on excitable 14 year olds distributing the results. Many of these models will fail. No one experiment is going to replace what we are now losing with the demise of news on paper, but over time, the collection of new experiments that do work might give us the reporting we need.

There were good ideas in the Knight Commission’s report on the information needs of American democracy, but it’s hard for me to argue that the polluted social media and cable news ecosystems of today are meeting them, given the collapse documented above.

In 2020, there is still no national strategy to catalyze that journalism, despite the clear and present danger absence poses to the capacity of the American people to engage in self-governance or the shared public facts necessary for effective collective action in response to a public health threat.

Investors, philanthropists, foundations, and billionaries who care about the future of our nation needs to keep investing in experiments that rebuild trust in journalism by reporting with the communities reporters cover using the affordances of social media, not on them.

Publishers could build out new forms of service journalism based upon data that improve access to information, empower consumers, patients, and constituents to make better choices, and ask the people formerly known as the audience to help journalists investigate.

We need to find more sustainable business models that produce investigative journalism that don’t depend on grants from foundations and public broadcasting corporations, though those funds will continue be part of the revenue mix.

As Shirky said, “nothing will work, but everything might. Now is the time for experiments, lots and lots of experiments, each of which will seem as minor at launch as craigslist did, as Wikipedia did, as octavo volumes did.”

Finally, state governments need to subsidize public access to publications and the Internet through libraries, schools, and wireless networks, aiming to deploy gigabit speeds to every home through whatever combination of technologies gets the job done.

The FCC, states and cities should invest in restorative information justice. How can a national government that spend hundreds of billions on weapon systems somehow have failed to provide a laptop for each child and broadband Internet access to every home?

It is unconscionable that our governments have allowed existing social inequities to be widened in 2020, as children are left behind by remote learning, excluded from the access to the information, telehealth, unemployment benefits, and family that will help them and their families make it through this pandemic.

Information deprivation should not be any more acceptable in the politics of the world’s remaining hyperpower than poisoning children with lead through a city water supply.