Shinjoung and I were stunned when we heard the news early yesterday morning that our friend -- and supreme friend of libraries and the Internet! -- Aaron Swartz left this world late friday evening. Aaron was deeply committed to and passionate about internet freedom and making information and knowledge as available as possible. To those ends, he worked on many projects large and small in his short but influential life. He was 26.
The *many* heartfelt remembrances from communities as diverse as journalism, law and open source tech -- witness Rick Perlstein, Lawrence Lessig, Glenn Greenwald, Karl Fogel -- attest to Aaron's supreme impact on the world at large (and that's no hyperbole!).
Before I had even heard of his tragic demise, a few colleagues and I were in the midst of writing letters of support for Aaron's nomination for this year's James Madison award from the American Library Association (ALA). This award, named in honor of President James Madison, was established by the ALA in 1986 to honor individuals or groups who have championed, protected and promoted public access to government information and the public’s “right to know” on the national level. I hope now that ALA will award Aaron posthumously!
We're helping Archive-it staff harvest a Web archive of Aaron's work, writings, images, videos, and remembrances. If you've got a URI that you'd like to be included in the archive, please paste it to this Google Doc.
Remembrances of Aaron, as well as donations in his memory, can be submitted at http://rememberaaronsw.com
The world will miss you Aaron. Be at peace my friend!
The Congressional Research Service has a new report on government government transparency, which, ironically, does not mention the fact that the report is available to the public in spite of the congressional policy that bars CRS from making this report public. Thanks and a big hat tip to Secrecy News, a publication of the Federation of American Scientists, for making the report available!
- Government Transparency and Secrecy: An Examination of Meaning and Its Use in the Executive Branch, by Wendy Ginsberg, Maeve P. Carey, L. Elaine Halchin, Natalie Keegan, Congressional Research Service, R42817 (November 8, 2012).
Also see the Secrecy News article about this and other recent CRS reports:
- The Meaning of Transparency, and More from CRS, by Steven Aftergood, Secrecy News, (November 13th, 2012).
It also does not consider in any depth how technological changes are affecting government information policy, perturbing or mooting longstanding official positions on disclosure and non-disclosure. Nor does it explore political obstacles to greater transparency (such as the congressional policy that bars CRS publication of this very report on transparency).
This is great news indeed! The Sunlight Foundation reported today that the "Public Access to Congressional Research Service Reports Resolution of 2012" (aka H. Res 727) has just been introduced by Representatives Quigley (D-IL) and Lance (R-NJ) -- many thanks to both of them.
The resolution would ensure that reports by Congress's $100 million-a-year think tank will become available to the public on a website maintained by the House Clerk. Numerous good government groups and advocates for more congressional transparency -- including FGI! -- have endorsed the measure. Please contact your Representative and ask them to vote HELL YEAH! on H. Res 727.
The reports, prepared by the Congressional Research Service, are frequently cited by the courts and the media and requested by members of the public, but CRS does not release them to the public. Instead, they come to widespread attention after they are released in dribs and drabs by Congressional offices and painstakingly collected by researchers. Some are collected and sold for $20 a copy, while others are made available by non-profit organizations for public consumption. By the time they become publicly available, the reports can become outdated, especially when an issue is moving quickly in Congress.
Reliable access to CRS Reports would ensure that everyone has timely and comprehensive access to the collective wisdom of hundreds of analysts and experts on political issues when they're at their most salient. This is already common practice in other support arms of the Congress, like the Government Accountability Office and the Congressional Budget Office.
In the past CRS reports have been more widely available, but relatively recent CRS-imposed policies are increasing limiting access even as the Internet has made the documents easier to share. In fact, the original limitation on public access was imposed in the 1950s on CRS's predecessor agency and arose from a concern about the costs of printing and mailing the reports -- not their confidentiality. In the Internet age, this limitation no longer makes sense, especially as these reports are already available on CRS's internal website in electronic form.
The National Security Archive has a roundup of stories from this year's Sunshine Week:
- Sunshine Week Round-Up, by Lauren Harper, Unredacted The National Security Archive blog (March 15, 2012).
Sunshine Week, the annual celebration of the importance of open government and freedom of information, is in full swing. Every year, the news media, nonprofits, libraries, schools, and the government debate the public’s right to know.
On March 19, OMB Watch released a new report that evaluates state and federal websites designed to ensure the accountability of public officials. The report, Upholding the Public's Trust: Key Features for Effective State Accountability Websites, examines state efforts to release public officials' integrity information online. Such transparency is crucial to guard against self-dealing and patronage. While states and the federal government have made progress in this area, more work lies ahead.
This report considers four key areas of transparency in the U.S. state and federal governments: campaign finance, lobbying, procurement, and public officials’ assets. The report describes the key features needed for effective online disclosure in these areas and highlights leading practices in the states.
- annoucnement, OMB Watch (March 19, 2012).
- Upholding the Public's Trust: Key Features for Effective State Accountability Websites, by Sean Moulton, Gavin Baker, and Charles N. O’Neill, OMB Watch, (March 2012). [pdf]
The Electronic Frontier Foundation, in their year in review, summed up 2011 as the year that secrecy jumped the shark. A sad state of affairs for the Obama Administration, which was supposed to be the most transparent ever.
- Government report concludes the government classified 77 million documents in 2010, a 40% increase on the year before. The number of people with security clearances exceeded 4.2. million, more people than the city of Los Angeles.
- Government tells Air Force families, including their kids, it’s illegal to read WikiLeaks. The month before, the Air Force barred its service members fighting abroad from reading the New York Times—the country’s Paper of Record.
- Lawyers for Guantanamo detainees were barred from reading the WikiLeaks Guantanamo files, despite their contents being plastered on the front page of the New York Times.
- President Obama refuses to say the words “drone” or “C.I.A” despite the C.I.A. drone program being on the front pages of the nation’s newspapers every day.
- CIA refuses to release even a single passage from its center studying global warming, claiming it would damage national security. As Secrecy News' Steven Aftergood said, “That’s a familiar song, and it became tiresome long ago.”
- The CIA demands former FBI agent Ali Soufan censor his book criticizing the CIA’s post 9/11 interrogation tactics of terrorism suspects. Much of the material, according to the New York Times, “has previously been disclosed in open Congressional hearings, the report of the national commission on 9/11 and even the 2007 memoir of George J. Tenet, the former C.I.A. director.”
- Department of Homeland Security has become so bloated with secrecy that even the “office's budget, including how many employees and contractors it has, is classified,” according to the Center for Investigative reporting. Yet their intelligence reports “produce almost nothing you can’t find on Google,” said a former undersecretary.
- Headline from the Wall Street Journal in September: “Anonymous US officials push open government.”
- NSA declassified a 200 year old report which they said demonstrated its “commitment to meeting the requirements” of President Obama’s transparency agenda. Unfortunately, the document “had not met the government's own standards for classification in the first place,” according to J. William Leonard, former classification czar.
- Government finally declassifies the Pentagon Papers 40 years after they appeared on the front page of the New York Times and were published by the House’s Armed Services Committee.
- Secrecy expert Steve Aftergood concludes after two years “An Obama Administration initiative to curb overclassification of national security information… has produced no known results to date.”
- President Obama accepts a transparency award…behind closed doors.
- Government attorneys insist in court they can censor a book which was already published and freely available online.
- Department of Justice refuses to release its interpretation of section 215 of the Patriot Act, a public law.
- U.S. refuses to release its legal justification for killing an American citizen abroad without a trial, despite announcing the killing in a press conference.
- U.S. won’t declassify legal opinion on 2001’s illegal warrantless wiretapping program.
- National Archive announced it was working on declassifying “a backlog of nearly 400 million pages of material that should have been declassified a long time ago.”
- The CIA refused to declassify Open Source Works, “which is the CIA’s in-house open source analysis component, is devoted to intelligence analysis of unclassified, open source information” according to Steve Aftergood.
- Twenty-three year State Department veteran gets his security clearance revoked for linking to a WikiLeaks document on his blog.
- The ACLU sued asking the State Department to declassify 23 cables out of the more than 250,000 released by WikiLeaks. After more than a year, the government withheld 12 in their entirety. You can see the other 11, heavily redacted, next to the unredacted copies on the ACLU website.
- The ACLU said it sued the State Department in part to show the "absurdity of the US secrecy regime." Mission accomplished.
[HT to Glen Greenwald]
Our friends at OMBWatch just published an interesting post highlighting several studies that compare and contrast the policy and practice of transparency of the US and other countries based on comparative analysis of FOIA, foreign aid, and budgets and revenues. The post, entitled "Global Studies Highlight U.S. Transparency Strengths, Weaknesses" "...provide[s] useful measures of U.S. openness relative to real-world conditions, in addition to highlighting global best practices and alternative approaches." It also references a group created in September 2011 called the Open Government Partnership (OGP) and highlights the US' role in the group and their joint Open Government Declaration signed by the US and 7 other countries -- with 38 more countries signing in March 2012. Read the rest of the post to find out where the US ranks among the countries of the world in terms of transparency and open government.
Here's the list of studies cited by OMBwatch:
- audit of FOIA laws in 105 countries and the European Union by the Associated Press (AP)
- Global Right to Information Rating released by Access Info Europe and the Centre for Law and Democracy
- Quality of Official Development Assistance report, published Nov. 14 by the Brookings Institution and the Center for Global Development
- "The Money Trail: Ranking Donor Transparency in Foreign Aid" by Anirban Ghosh and Homi Kharas, published in the November issue of the journal World Development (available to subscribers only :-( )
- Aid Transparency Index 2011 by the organization Publish What You Fund
Thanks OMB Watch and the Sunlight Foundation! These two open government groups just sent a letter to the Senate about the E-Gov Fund in the second “minibus” appropriations bill. In the letter, the groups raise and echo concerns regarding the funding level for e-government in the Statement of Administration Policy concerning H.R. 2354. They state that funding levels are inadequate to support crucial transparency programs such as USAspending.gov and Data.gov and ask that the E-Gov Fund remain a separate budget line to preserve the reporting requirements of the E-Gov Act, which provide transparency about how this money is spent.
Here's the text of the OMBWatch/Sunlight letter:
November 16, 2011
Re: FY 2012 Appropriations for the Electronic Government Fund
We are writing to urge you to protect funding for the Electronic Government Fund at the General Services Administration in H.R. 2354, the Energy and Water Development and Related Agencies Appropriations Act. As currently written, H.R. 2354 would not provide adequate funding for the E-Gov Fund’s important programs, which provide critical support for the construction of a more transparent and efficient government and serve as a building block for private-sector innovations that create high-tech jobs.
The E-Gov Fund has a proven track record of successful transparency projects that have delivered efficiency improvements and increased government accountability. For instance, USAspending.gov and the IT Dashboard have helped root out government waste and inefficiency and recently led to the elimination of some $3 billion in failing technology projects. PaymentAccuracy.gov shines a light on improper federal payments, which total billions of dollars each year, and Challenge.gov provides a low-cost platform to help agencies bring the public in to identify more efficient solutions to problems facing the country.
In addition, E-Gov Fund projects provide the framework for vibrant private-sector business and job creation. The thousands of government data sets now available through Data.gov are building blocks for innovative new IT products. For instance, the search engine Bing now integrates Medicare quality data into searches for hospitals. Brightscope, a start-up company, has raised $2 million in venture capital and created 30 jobs through their analysis of retirement plan data from the Department of Labor.
Unfortunately, cuts to the E-Gov Fund in FY 2011 have already hurt successful projects. Needed upgrades to increase transparency and improve data quality have been delayed or abandoned, and two early-stage projects have been terminated. Additional cuts will further hamper efforts to make government more efficient and transparent.
These cuts are penny-wise and pound-foolish. The E-Gov Fund supports powerful tools for reducing waste, fraud, and abuse and for creating private-sector jobs, and given appropriate funding, these projects result in benefits far in excess of their costs.
To support continued transparency, efficiency, and job creation, we respectfully urge you to restore full funding for the E-Gov Fund. In particular, we ask you to support the president’s recommendation of $34 million to preserve these important programs.
We also ask that the E-Gov Fund remain separate from the Federal Citizen Services Fund, as requested in the Statement of Administration Policy on H.R. 2354. Because the proposed Information and Engagement for Citizens account would not be subject to reporting requirements of the Electronic Government Act of 2002 and has not been authorized by Congress, combining the funds would decrease government transparency and accountability.
We appreciate your time and attention to this issue. If you have any questions or would like to discuss this issue further, please contact Sam Rosen-Amy of OMB Watch at (202) 683-4806 or Daniel Schuman of the Sunlight Foundation at (202) 742-1520 x 273.
OMB Watch Sunlight Foundation
FGI joined ALA and 8 other organizations in signing a letter praising congressional and administration efforts to improve federal financial transparency.
- Ten Organizations Praise Federal Financial Transparency Efforts, by Daniel Schuman, Sunlight Foundation (June 21, 2011).
The organizations said the recently-introduced Digital Accountability and Transparency Act of 2011 (or DATA Act) would "revolutionize federal spending transparency," and also praised President Obama's June 13, 2011, Executive Order as an important transparency measure.
The DATA Act would establish a federal transparency board -- a successor to the Recovery Accountability and Transparency Board -- with the dual missions of expanding spending transparency to the entire government and identifying government-wide financial data standards...
The Executive Order immediately establishes a Government Accountability and Transparency Board that, over the next six months, will develop a plan to integrate government spending data.
OMB Watch has a good overview of what went on with the e-gov funding this year and how the budget will affect transparency and open government. The article says that H.R. 1473, which President Obama signed into law on April 15, provided only $8 million for the E-Gov Fund, a 76.5 percent cut.
- The Transparency-Killing Budget, OMB Watch (June 1, 2011)
The article ends on a hopeful note saying that the funding could be restored next year and there is bi-partisan support for the E-Gov Fund.
Given the current political climate, it is hard for me to be optimistic that there will be sufficient funding for government information production, dissemination, and preservation in the near future, much less for the long term. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, which examines federal and state fiscal policies and programs that affect low and moderate income families and individuals, reports that the House Judiciary Committee began considering a constitutional balanced budget amendment that "would force Congress to enact the Republican Study Committee's (RSC) extreme budget plan or something similar to it." That plan would cut total funding for non-defense discretionary programs by approximately 70 percent in 2021.
- Balanced Budget Amendment Would Require More Extreme Cuts Than Ryan Plan, By Robert Greenstein, James R. Horney and Kelsey Merrick, Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (June 6, 2011)
This is the part of the budget that includes veterans' medical care, most homeland security activities, border protection, and the FBI. It also includes education, environmental protection, protecting the nation's food and water supply, and medical research, as well as services for disadvantaged or abused children, frail elderly people, and people with severe disabilities.
Even if this amendment doesn't become law and even if the specific RSC budget doesn't pass, it is hard to imagine, when such huge cuts are being seriously considered, that there will be adequate support in Congress for Data.gov, GPO, FDsys, American Factfinder, and other government information projects. Even if budgets are adequate to fund minimal dissemination of "current" information on government web sites, it is hard to imagine there will be adequate funding to keep online -- or even preserve offline -- older "non-current" digital information (e.g., last year's annual reports, non-current census information, "out of date" economic data).
It is much easier to imagine that libraries that rely on pointing to government web sites for government information may find themselves pointing to empty pages.
When Congress is willing to cut medical care for veterans, homeland security, services for abused children, and protection of our water supply, much less government openness initiatives for even current information, it is hard to imagine that it will be willing to fund digital preservation of government information.
Who will decide what is discarded and what is kept? Who will decide what is worth preserving and what is not? If digital government information were deposited in FDLP libraries, every FDLP library would at least have the opportunity to make its own decisions on what is worth preserving for its own community. If digital government information were deposited in FDLP libraries, FDLP libraries could work together and collaborate on solutions to preserve digital information for the future. But if FDLP libraries do not demand digital deposit, there may be no files left to preserve.