FOIA Friday

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One year waiting period for Illinois’ FOIA “recurrent requestors”: In Illinois, a new bill in the state senate has a provision that marks anyone submitting more than 5o FOIA requests a year as a “recurrent requestor”, for whom the state government can delay the FOI process for up to a year. The governor has until August 26th to make a final decision on the bill.

ACLU Files FOIA Over Perry Prayer Event: Governor Rick Perry of Texas, in a controversial move, is holding a “prayer meeting” for the state next month, which the ACLU finds more than a little suspicious. Perry claims all the meeting’s funding comes from an outside organization, but the ACLU has filed to see if any state funds are utilized.

Transparency Groups Assail House GOP Maneuver to Send Debt Bill to Senate: Speaker of the House John Boehner has made himself an enemy of many government transparency groups this week in his haste to get his debt reduction plane passed in the Senate. Instead of waiting for the bill to go through the House, he’s attached it to another bill, the Faster FOIA Act, in order to force it to be voted through quickly. Watchdog groups are offended and advocating against the move because it attaches partisan politics to government transparency.

FOIA: The public cannot access texts and emails from personal devices: Finally, from Champaign, Illinois comes this recently-completed FOIA request from the Post-Gazette. The core of the response is a reminder that, according to FOI laws, the public cannot receive private mobile communications, even those of lawmakers and civil servants.
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MuckRock’s Top 10 Most-Requested Agencies

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Curious which agencies people are curious about? Mitch recently ran the numbers and broke down the top agencies – well, all agencies really – receiving FOIA request from MuckRock users. The top ten are below, but there are a lot (104) of agencies that have received only a single request from MuckRock users. You can download the complete list after the top 10.

  1. Federal Bureau of Investigation 69 requests
  2. Central Intelligence Agency 57 requests
  3. Department of Homeland Security 23 requests
  4. Marines 18 requests
  5. Office of the Secretary of Defense 16 requests
  6. Department of State 16 requests
  7. Under Secretary Office of Intelligence & Analysis 15 requests
  8. National Security Agency 9 requests
  9. Federal Communications Commission 8 requests
  10. Army 8 requests

Download the full list of agencies and the number of requests they’ve received.

FOIA Friday: The Dog Days are (Not) Over

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Phew. Anyone else melting in this heat wave? I know I am! If you’ll excuse me, as soon as I’m done with this article I’m going to go worship the gods of central AC. I advise you do the same while reading up on this week’s FOIA exploits.

Agency head grilled over poor FOIA responses: The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, which only officially opened its doors on Thursday, is already the subject of a little controversy. Its head, Elizabeth Warren, was brought to task by the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee for her department’s overzealous of documents released to watchdog group Judicial Watch. Hopefully, the CFPB will be more forthcoming in the future.

(h/t to the Washington Examiner.)

CREW Files FOIA Requests Regarding DOJ’s Investigation of Christine O’Donnell: For the past several months, the DOJ has, in conjunction with the FBI, been investigating Ms. O’Donnell for alleged campaign finance illegalities. The investigation closed without prosecution, and CREW would like to know why. They’ve made similar FOIA requests pertaining to DOJ investigations of several senators and representative and have gotten no response from either the DOJ or FBI.

POGO Files FOIA Request for NASA Heavy-Lift Rocket Studies: From POGO, a story we’ll have to check back in on. With the space shuttle program having made its last launch—who watched it live?—NASA has turned to new projects, among them a rocket designed to carry heavy loads into deep space. POGO, sniffing a manned exploration of deep space in the offing, has recently filed a request to look into the rocket’s development and NASA’s contracting.

A Grimm Proposal for Whistleblowers: This article, also from POGO, is a little less, shall we say, uplifting. Representatives Grimm, Garrett, Campbell, and Stivers have introduced a bill that could gut current corporate whistleblower legislation by, among other provisions, requiring whistleblowers to contact their own companies before the SEC or CFTC, stripping them of their protections after having contacted the agencies, and creating loopholes through which companies can internally “address” issues and avoid further contact or oversight from the SEC or CFTC. While not directly related to Freedom of Information laws, this does deal with corporate and government accountability and transparency, something I think we all agree the world needs more, not less of.

Aaron Swartz

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I was shocked to read today that Aaron Swartz, one of our earliest and most active users, is facing federal charges of wire fraud, computer fraud and more and faces up to 35 years in jail, all for allegedly downloading, en masse, scientific journals through the JSTOR online service.

In a widely quoted statement, US Attorney Carmen Ortiz wrote:

“Stealing is stealing, whether you use a computer command or a crowbar, and whether you take documents, data, or dollars,” Ortiz said in a statement. “It is equally harmful to the victim whether you sell what you have stolen or give it away.”

While I have no direct or indirect knowledge of the circumstances around the alleged activity, Ortiz has not shown or given any evidence that Aaron did, in fact, sell or give away the materials he is alleged to have downloaded, nor has Ortiz indicated that the victim was, in fact, significantly harmed. JSTOR stated that the materials had been returned. Aaron turned himself in today and is, of course, presumed innocent until proven guilty.

What I do know, however, is that the U.S. Attorney’s Office made an interesting choice when picking high-profile examples to make of so-called hacking cases. Aaron has been a tireless advocate of open, accessible data, particularly public data for non-commercial purposes. He helped craft and launch, with Lawrence Lessig, the Creative Commons license, one of the few bright spots as the legal public data commons has, in many ways, shrunk in recent years to increased hard-line enforcement of copyright laws, extended copyright terms, stepped up enforcement and narrow views of fair use.

Aaron was also investigated for another incident in which he mass-downloaded data: Court records, which were accessed from a library and which were in the public domain.

He has also been an early and avid advocate for the work we’re doing at MuckRock, having previously requested his own FBI records under the Privacy Act. He’s one of our top requesters, with his requests’ success rate showing just how difficult it is to actually make public data public. And Aaron has shown his academic abilities, from analysis of Wikipedia authorship to writing published by IEEE.

Given all the above, and given that JSTOR has issued a statement indicating it had considered the matter more or less resolved, I have a hard time understanding the merits of the aggressive prosecution, particularly with 35 years of jail time for an aggressive advocate and pioneer of open and free speech in which no personal gain is indicated, nor significant loss shown. Aaron has tweeted that those wishing to support him should contribute to Demand Progress, a progressive non-profit he founded and was executive director of.

A reporter called me up from Politico and asked about Aaron’s involvement with MuckRock, particularly if he was involved in the day-to-day running of the site. I told the reporter he was just a user, but the truth is that Aaron, like many other members of our active community, are the real driving force of the site: Our marketing department, our sales group, our editorial board and more. He has been a ceaseless advocate for transparency and access, two bedrocks of our democracy.

Right now, the side of free speech and open data needs a lot more advocates like Aaron. We’re rooting for him.

This post was updated Wednesday July 20, 2011.

FOIA Friday: Federal Edition

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This week, we have a whole host of links dealing with federal agencies and individuals and how they deal with FOIA disagreements. Here’s a hint: not well!

District Court Rejects DHS and ICE FOIA Withholdings That Conceal Misrepresentations and Embarrassment: In a bold move that strengthened the positions of plaintiffs Center for Constitutional Rights, the National Day Laborer Organizing Network and the Immigration Justice Clinic at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law, a district judge in New York has ordered Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), and the Executive Office of Immigration Review (EOIR) to release more information on communities’ options to “opt-out” of the Secure Communities program. This is part of an ongoing fight between the plaintiffs and specifically ICE and DHS, as originally outline in this FOI Friday post.

EPIC v. NSA: FOIA Suit for Cybersecurity Authority Will Move Forward, though National Security Council Remains a “FOIA-Free Zone”: After the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) filed a FOI request with the NSA for information relating to their cybersecurity measures, the agency forwarded the request to the National Security Council instead of answering it, passing it into the hands of an un-FOIA-able agency. However, while a judge recently upheld the NSC’s FOIA exemption, the ruling also stated that the NSA was still responsible to respond to EPIC’s request on their own.

FOIA request seeks details of Justice Thomas’ jet and yacht travel: Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas has aroused a whole lot of controversy recently in the wake of a New York Times article that alleged Thomas had, after receiving $42,000 in gifts over six years prior to 2004, accepted as gifts the use of planes and yachts owned by real estate magnate Harlan Crow. Common Cause, a nonpartisan government watchdog, has filed a FOI request with the U.S. Marshals to determine if Thomas has traveled in Crow’s yachts or planes and, if so, if these trips have been properly reported.

Also, check out Muckrock’s Michael Morisy’s article on the failure of government transparency for Commonwealth Magazine here.

MuckRock’s getting better at filing FOIA over time

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One of the hypothesis we had when we launched the site was that, by watching hundreds and hundreds of requests, we could help our users be more successful in filing requests that get answered.  I’m happy to report that, so far, it seams we were right:

Sorry for the jaggy graph, but the trends are pretty clear: We’re doing much, much better lately when it comes to getting requests actually answered, thanks to regularly tweaking the template system, the FOIA contact database and the suggested requests, as well as by deploying the new follow up tool.

None of this would have been possible, of course, without the amazingly talented community of requesters who have been helping us pave new ground in transparency on all sorts of issues. You can download the data set I used to make the above graph in .CSV format, which you can open in Excel. As a bonus, the data set also includes total requests filed via MuckRock and the total pages we’ve published. An important caveat about the latter: Our counting mechanism was, up until relatively recently, fairly bugging and drastically undercounted the amount we had published. The big spikes the past few weeks are the result of us fixing those bugs. One other, slightly smaller caveat is that “Total Pages” also includes some material that is still embargoed and is not publicly viewable yet.

Thanks again for helping us slowly fine tune government transparency: We couldn’t have done it without you.

FOIA Friday: Post-Patriotism Edition

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Welcome back! I hope everyone had a good, safe Fourth of July, and now that we’re over this whole silly patriotism thing, we can move on to the important things in life. Like FOIA Requests!

Are Lawsuits The Only Way to Shake Records Loose From DOJ?: The question is raised by Channing Turner at Main Justice. Turner reveals that in spite of the flowery pro-transparency rhetoric of the Obama administration, the DOJ (and other federal agencies) are still resisting many FOIA requests. Lawsuits, which definitely get the agencies’ attentions, seem to be the path of recourse for many, but they cost the federal government a LOT.

E-Mails Show WI Justices’ Debate After ‘Chokehold’ — Meet With Police Vs. Photo Session: Wisconsin justice is more interesting than the rest of the US, it would seem. After a conservative justice supposedly put a liberal justice in a chokehold, the liberal justice advocated in private emails recently released to the Milwuakee Journal Sentinel. The attacked justice rightfully wanted to speak to the chief of the police force guarding the justices, but her coworkers were largely apathetic or resistant, citing a pre-scheduled photo-op as a conflict.

Illinois: Firearm Owners Identification Card FOIA Exemption Bill Signed into Law Today: The NRA won a victory in Illinois this past week, convincing the State Senate to pass a bill protecting the gun-ownership information of all citizens not under important investigation. NRA opponents had sought to acquire personal data of gun-owners in the state and compile it.

State Department FOIA requests unanswered four long years later: Finally, in news that shouldn’t shock anyone who’s ever had to deal with a protracted FOI process, the State Department is REALLY bad at filing and fulfilling requests on time. Many requests are several years old, some as old as four years, and the numbers aren’t getting better year-to-year.

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