March 20, 2009

Public unable to get at taxpayer funded information

File this under "unabated shocker"—Government reluctant to give up taxpayer funded information:

Government agencies across the country are sitting on gigabytes of valuable digital data that could be mashed, mixed and re-organized in crafty ways by Web 2.0 entrepreneurs and public interest groups engaged in everything from government oversight, to providing practical information to Americans.

The article focuses on the arguments used to keep open government activists away from publicly funded information. The reason? Consider this money quote:

The tension between record seekers—including journalists and nonprofits—and government agencies often stems from the fact that bureaucrats collect data to do their job; while the public often requests it to prove otherwise. "Government does not want to release the data, because people would draw ... conclusions that government doesn't want them to draw," says Bill Allison, senior fellow with the Sunlight Foundation.

But how are they keeping transparency activists away? Through all sorts of convoluted legal arguments that fly in the face of common sense. Consider Exemption 3. In a nutshell, they allow targets of Freedom of Information Acts to omit certain records from disclosure, without the need to state a reason. While there is sometimes a valid reason for doing so (national security, privacy concerns), the fact that entire categories can be omitted should be cause for concern.

Another way bureaucrats thwart government watchers is by stretching the exemption that applies when private citizens become involved. As the Supreme Court said in a landmark ruling on governmental transparency:

Significantly, the court also concluded that the purpose of FOIA was to monitor the government, not private citizens. Rarely would records involving private citizens aid in keeping an eye on government activities, the court said. (Emphasis mine)

Think about that for a second. In the case that was brought to the Supreme Court, an organization dedicated to preserving the freedom of the press wanted the Justice Department to provide it with information on a businessman with possible mob ties as well as ties to a congressman. Yet because the businessman is a private citizen, the Court shut him down. I understand the need to protect citizen's rights to privacy, but it would seem that once you become involved with a public figure you are allowing yourself some level of scrutiny.