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.

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

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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.)

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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

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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

Why I’m joining the Sunlight Foundation

I won’t bury the lede on this story: today is my first day at the Sunlight Foundation as a senior analyst. I’m enormously excited to be joining an organization that’s been at the heart of a global movement towards opening governments to the people they serve with technology, from open source to open data.

If you’ve followed my writing and interests over the past decade, you know that I’m passionate about open government in all of its forms. I’ve been humbled to meet thousands of people around the world who are deeply committed to public service and improving how government functions.

This is a natural fit. From improving public access to information to civic engagement to collaboration around code to participation in democratic governance processes, from regulations to legislation, the Sunlight Foundation has been at the cutting edge of making government more open, effective and accountable.

There’s also a personal reason I made this decision: Jake Brewer, a former Sunlighter and White House staffer who we lost far too early last year, frequently urged me to to make the most of my short time on Earth. This is the right place for me to be.

Long-time readers should expect me to continue writing and participating in this role, creating acts of advocacy journalism in the public interest.

I believe that people have a right to know what is being done in their name by their elected governments. Implicit in that view is the notion that representative democracy is the worst form of government, save for all the rest. It’s up to us to protect and improve the states that we have founded and fought to preserve.

As people who have been paying close attention to Sunlight know, it’s an organization in transition. I’m proud to join up with this open government “restartup”, pitching in where ever my talents are helpful. I believe 2016 is going to be a dynamic year at Sunlight, which is why I’ve thrown in my lot with the extraordinary folks on staff.

I hope that you will continue to send your thoughts, feedback, suggestions, tips and ideas my way in the days and months to come.

Obama Administration Secretly Lobbied Against FOIA Reform In Congress

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A Freedom of Information Act lawsuit showed that the Obama administration vigorously lobbied against Freedom of Information Act reform in Congress.  The documents and correspondence, which were obtained through the Freedom of the Press Foundation’s lawsuit against the Justice Department and reported out by Jason Leopold at Vice Media, showed that the administration was literally lobbying against its own policy becoming law.

The Department of Justice’s six page memorandum shows that the agency opposed Congress making the exact language in Attorney General Eric Holder and President Obama’s 2009 memorandums on FOIA law.

The Justice Department opposing FOIA reform direct conflicts commitments made in the U.S. National Action Plan on Open Government required as part of its participation in  the Open Government Partnership.

I asked Ambassador Power how the United States can be a credible leader on open government if the White House and DoJ does this. In an alternate universe, she and the administration would respond publicly.

Unfortunately, it’s easy to predict the outcome of this news: publicly committing to open government reforms and then undermining them privately will erode abysmal levels of trust in government even more.

In the face of hypocrisy from the Justice Department on this count, the public should  call on their Senators to make the Freedom of Information Act reform legislation the House of Representatives passed in January into law.

Congress releases open data on bill status

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Imagine searching Facebook, Google or Twitter for the status of a bill before Congress and getting an instant result. That future is now here, but it’s not evenly implemented yet.

When the Library of Congress launched Congress.gov in 2012, they failed to release the data behind it. Yesterday, that changed when the United States Congress started releasing data online about the status of bills.

For the open government advocates, activists and civic hackers that have been working for over a decade for this moment, seeing Congress turn on the data tap was a historic shift.

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Congressional leaders from both sides of the aisle applauded the release of House and Senate bill status information by the U.S. Government Printing Office and Library of Congress.

“Today’s release of bill status information via bulk download is a watershed moment for Congressional transparency,” said House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA), in a statement. “By modernizing our approach to government and increasing public access to information, we can begin to repair the relationship between the people and their democratic institutions. The entire Congressional community applauds the dedication of the Legislative Branch Bulk Data Task Force, the Office of the Clerk, the House Appropriations Committee, GPO, and the Library of Congress, which worked together to make this progress possible.”

“Building off previous releases of bills and summaries, today’s release of bill status information largely completes the overarching goal of providing bulk access to all the legislative data that traditionally has been housed on Thomas.gov and now also resides on Congress.gov,” said Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer (D-MD). “This is a major accomplishment that has been many years in the making. It goes a long way toward making Congress more transparent and accessible to innovation through third party apps and systems. I applaud the dedicated civil servants who made this possible at the Legislative Branch service agencies, and I want to thank the Bulk Data Task Force for their leadership in this effort. While this largely completes a major goal of the Task Force, I look forward to continuing to workwith them to further modernize the U.S. Congress.”

The impact of open government data releases depend upon publicy and political agency. Releasing the states of bills before Congress in a way that can be baked in by third party apps and services is a critical, laudable step in that direction, but much more remains to be done in making the data more open and putting it to use and re-use. If the Library of Congress opens up an application programming interface for the data that supplies both Congress.gov and the public, it would help to reduce the asynchrony of legislative information between the public and elites who can afford to pay for Politico’s Legislative Compass or Quorum Analytics that is the status quo today.

In an era when Congress job approval ratings and trust in government are at historic lows, the shift didn’t make news beyond the Beltway. Govtrack.us, which is based upon data scraped from the Library of Congress, has been online for years. Until this XML data is used by media and technology companies in ways that provide the public with more understanding of what Congress is doing on their behalf and give them more influence in that legislative process, that’s unlikely to change quickly.

New Freedom of Information Act Reform Bill Introduced In Congress

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On Tuesday, the U.S. House of Representatives will once again weigh reforming the Freedom of Information Act to improve how the most important open government law of the United States is honored.

The FOIA Reform Act,  authored by Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA) is once again on the Congressional Calendar, with an additional 22 page report, H.R. 391.

According to government transparency advocate Lisette Garcia, an expert on FOIA law, the new FOIA bill (H.R. 653) was “heavily negotiated between both parties throughout the drafting stages.” She expects it to be considered in suspension of ordinary debate rules and fast-tracked with little opportunity for public input.

Garcia, who alerted us to the new bill text via email, said that Congressman Jason Chaffetz (R-CO) gave her an advance copy of the bill last December in exchange for her feedback as an experienced FOIA requester.

“Now is the time to register any objection or endorsement you may want to offer regarding any specific provisions,” she wrote.”Feedback to your representative, or any member of the Oversight Committee, may be submitted by calling the U.S. House switchboard at (202) 224-3121.”
That feedback matters because of the way that FOIA reform died in 2014.

Alert readers may recall that Congress was poised to enact historic Freedom of Information Act reforms in late 2014, only to see FOIA reform die as the press looked the other way and lobbying by the financial industry scuttled it at the last minute.

That was a huge loss for the public interest and a giant missed opportunity for public engagement around public access to public information.

Despite FOIA reform passing both Houses of Congress unanimously, the government transparency bill expired when federal agencies, including the Justice Department and the Federal Trade Agency, reportedly lobbied against the bill when it came before the House one final time and Speaker of the House John Boehner failed to put it on the legislative calendar.

The fiasco led press freedom advocates to criticize the Obama administration for failing to support making the same FOIA policy the President introduced and endorsed publicly in 2009 the law of the land.

Over the past several years, the Obama administration has committed and recommitted to modernizing how the federal government complies with the Freedom of Information Act for years.

On the one hand, there has been progress on a new website for requests and pilot projects for ‘release to one, release to all’ policies. The administration has also released  vast amounts of public data online and used technology to inform and engage the public in governance and science in unprecedented ways, from crowdsourcing and challenges to social media.

On the other, there’s a gap between what the Obama administration says about open government and how it follows through when informed members of the public ask tough questions.

The “presumption of openness” presented with such hope on the first day of President Barack Obama’s presidency in 2009 hasn’t led to the change that the public wished to see in 2016.

Researchers at the FOIA Project at Syracuse University found last week that there was a record number of pending FOIA lawsuits in 2015.

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FOIA reform may face higher barriers to passing in the 114th Congress, but it’s more sorely needed than ever.

Here’s one way to give it some more attention. At the end of 2015, the Obama administration outlined 45 different ways it’s working to make the U.S. government more open and accountable to the people it serves.

If the White House intends to fulfill the open government promise it made in January 2009, President Barack Obama could start by adding a single sentence endorsing FOIA reform in Congress during his final State of the Union speech tomorrow night, making the “presumption of openness” law.

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If President Obama still believes that he has led the “most transparent administration in history,” maybe it’s time to ask the public and Congress to make his public policies permanent so that the next inhabitant of the People’s House cannot easily reverse them.

Updates: 

  1. Yes, FOIA is still broken, but for more reasons than you might think. 

    The Washington Times and The Blaze  reported on today’s House Oversight Committee’s report, which lambasted the Obama administration’s handling of FOIA requests as “hobbled” and “broken.”What both publications left out — along with Congressman Issa, who wrote an op-ed in the Daily Caller about the FOIA Oversight and Implementation Act he sponsored — is important. As the Wall Street Journal reported in 2013 and the New York Times reported today, the private sector is a huge user of this open government law. Consulting groups and hedge funds use FOIA requests for business intelligence.

    In fact, according to a 2015 study by Margaret B. Kwoka, an assistant professor at the University of Denver Sturm College of Law, cited by the Times, commercial resellers of data make the majority of FOIA requests at some federal agencies: 75%+ at the FDA, 9% at the Defense Logistics Agency.

    In theory, a “release to one, release to all” policy would address this issue, if FOIA officers and agencies worked to reconcile it with complementary efforts to proactive disclosure of open data online across the federal government — and the Department of Justice was willing to hold agencies and itself to a higher standard.

  2. This reform could weaken the current Freedom of Information Act.
    While they’re supportive of the core reforms that are preserved from the original FOIA Reform Act, open government advocates are decrying the addition of new language that would exempt the U.S. intelligence community from certain provisions of the Freedom of Information Act, including the consultation process that the bill would create.

    Yep: this FOIA reform bill could enable a vast portion of the federal government to be more secretive, not less.

    “The changes to the House FOIA bill, added as a result of a last-minute demand of HPSCI, is a pattern that is becoming all too familiar and objectionable” said Patrice McDermott, the executive director of OpenTheGovernment.org, in a statement.

    “The efforts to exempt the Intelligence Community are not acceptable. They are particularly offensive in this bill intended to promote openness across the federal government.”

  3. FOIA reform passed the House but the bill is not law yet.

     The Hill reported that the House is poised to approve the FOIA reform bill on Tuesday, Jan.12.

    In fact, the House moved to consider H.R. 653 “as amended” on Monday night, under suspension of the rules, and passed the bill under voice vote.

    Now that the House has passed FOIA reform (again), it’s on to the Senate.