Category Archives: Freedom of Information

Government Data and the Invisible Hand

Source: David Robinson, Harlan Yu, William P. Zeller, Edward W. Felten, Yale Journal of Law & Technology, Vol. 11, 2008

From the abstract:
If the next Presidential administration really wants to embrace the potential of Internet-enabled government transparency, it should follow a counter-intuitive but ultimately compelling strategy: reduce the federal role in presenting important government information to citizens. Today, government bodies consider their own websites to be a higher priority than technical infrastructures that open up their data for others to use. We argue that this understanding is a mistake. It would be preferable for government to understand providing reusable data, rather than providing websites, as the core of its online publishing responsibility.

Rather than struggling, as it currently does, to design sites that meet each end-user need, we argue that the executive branch should focus on creating a simple, reliable and publicly accessible infrastructure that exposes the underlying data. Private actors, either nonprofit or commercial, are better suited to deliver government information to citizens and can constantly create and reshape the tools individuals use to find and leverage public data. The best way to ensure that the government allows private parties to compete on equal terms in the provision of government data is to require that federal websites themselves use the same open systems for accessing the underlying data as they make available to the public at large.

Reinventing Transparent Government

Source: Patrick Radden, The Century Foundation, September 10, 2008

From the summary:
In “Reinventing Transparent Government,” a new policy brief for The Century Foundation, Patrick Radden Keefe, fellow and expert on national security and civil liberties issues, calls for rolling back the secrecy of the Bush years and restoring transparency and accountability to American government. In the brief, Keefe explores the broad range of areas in which the United States government has adopted a policy of reflexive secrecy in recent years, and examines the extent to which that posture represents a departure from the American tradition of accountable, transparent government. Keefe makes five concrete proposals for specific changes a new administration could make to usher in a new era of sound, open, responsible government, and invokes James Madison’s admonition that “A popular government, without popular information, or the means of acquiring it, is but a Prologue to a Farce, or a Tragedy, or perhaps both.”

2008 Secrecy Report Card Released

Source:, 2008
The 2008 Secrecy Report Card, our fifth annual report assessing trends in public access to information. This year’s expanded report is expanded to cover Mandatory Declassification Review numbers and progress under the Automatic Declassification Review process, and covers legislation in the 110th Congress that would increase openness and accountability. The report also contains updated numbers on requests for National Security Letters, competitiveness of federal contracting, and use of the “state secrets” privilege.
See also:
Press release

The Problem With Paperless

Source: Steve Mirsky, Information Outlook, Vol. 12 no. 8, August 2008
(subscription required)

Authentication of online legal documents is critical, otherwise they are unofficial and open to potential sabotage. The very digital technology that makes it possible to offer legal resources online also enables people to alter or illegally copy them.
See also:
State-by-State Report on Authentication of Online Legal Resources
Source: American Association of Law Libraries, 2007

E-Mail, Public Documents Get Erased, Disappear

Source: Sudhin Thanawala, Associated Press, Los Angeles Times, July 14, 2008

A 50-state survey by the Associated Press of government e-mail retention earlier this year found a wide variety of laws and practices, with the vast majority of states officially treating e-mail like printed documents. But most of the states with e-mail laws allow officials to choose which ones to turn over in Freedom of Information requests and to decide on their own when e-mail records are deleted.

States failing FOI responsiveness

Source: Better Government Association and National Freedom of Information Coalition

Freedom of information laws are only as good as the response mechanisms built into the laws themselves. After all, if citizens can’t take action to enforce their right of access shy of filing suit, what good are FOI laws?
When it comes to responsiveness measures, not much good at all.

The Better Government Association (BGA) and the National Freedom of Information Coalition (NFOIC) have united to review the recourse afforded citizens in the public records laws of all 50 states, and the conclusions make for some relentlessly depressing reading.

The tools available to citizens to enforce their rights under state FOI laws are, with rare exceptions, endemically weak. The haphazard construction of state public records laws has resulted in an information gap that significantly affects the citizenry’s ability to examine even the most fundamental actions of government, the study found.

States failing FOI responsiveness (also available in PDF)

Secrecy Report Card 2007: Report Finds Expanded Federal Government Secrecy in 2006

Source: Patrice McDermott and Emily Feldman,, 2007

From the press release:
Government secrecy saw further expansion last year despite growing public concern, according to a report released today by a coalition of open government advocates. The Secrecy Report Card, produced annually by in order to identify trends in public access to information, found a troubling lack of transparency in military procurement, assertions of executive privilege, and expansion of “sensitive” categories of information, among other areas.

In 2006, the public’s use of the Freedom of Information Act continued to rise. Agency backlogs are significant; the oldest FOIA request in the federal government has now been pending for more than 20 years.

A Little Sunshine: After a period of eclipse, anti-secrecy and open-government laws are making a comeback

Source: Melissa Maynard, Governing, Vol. 20 no. 10, July 2007

… The Taurus case is part of a modest but growing revival of interest around the country in open-government issues and sunshine laws. It reverses a clear trend toward secrecy that prevailed at all levels from 2001 to 2005, stimulated by the actions of the federal government and fueled by concerns about terrorism and identity theft. “We’ve been getting governors and mayors who think they’re running little White Houses,” says Charles Davis, director of the Missouri-based Freedom of Information Coalition. They had support from Washington in their efforts. In the wake of 9/11, the federal government created an exemption to the Freedom of Information Act that preempted state sunshine laws. Under the Homeland Security Act, state governments were forbidden to release “critical infrastructure information” in the name of national security. But while exemptions to state open-meetings and -records laws continue to be proposed by the hundreds, the pendulum has begun to swing back in the direction of access. State-level freedom of information coalitions are proliferating and becoming more influential, especially in states that have relatively weak anti- secrecy laws on the books.