FOI Advocate News Blog

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The NFOIC open government blog is a compendium of original concepts and analysis as well as ideas, edited excerpts and materials from a variety of sources. When the information comes from another source, we will attribute it and provide a link. The blog relies on the accuracy and integrity of the original sources cited; we will correct errors and inaccuracies when we become aware of them.

For Advocate posts prior to July, 2011, visit

March 24, 2014 12:56 PM

Sunshine Week, a push for transparency in government, is drawing to a close. And that's why we choose to highlight it at its end.

The demand for open government must not be reserved to a limited time frame. Indeed, it must be an all-day, every day effort — and not just on the part of media, though we are the ones who champion it.

Open government is a necessity for every citizen. In an age when government has been discovered to be spying on us for no good reason and using secretive methods in a weak attempt to justify it, a call for more eyes watching the doings of government is ever more a necessity, and at every level of government.

To that end, we offer a few thoughts from Susan Schwartz, the legislative committee chairwoman for the Pennsylvania Freedom of Information Coalition, as well as the Project Sunshine chairwoman for the Society of Professional Journalists. Continue>>>

March 21, 2014 10:06 AM

Gov. Terry Branstad’s work group in charge of investigating secret settlements to former state employees has already formed — and plans to meet behind closed doors, the governor’s spokesman said Tuesday.

Lt. Gov. Kim Reynolds announced the formation of the work group Monday in response to a Des Moines Register investigation that found the Republican Branstad administration had paid more than $280,000 to six former employees, most who allege they were fired for their ties to Democrats.

The settlements were shuffled through state agencies, avoiding the typical process of being approved by and made public through the Iowa Appeal Board. Continue>>>

March 21, 2014 10:05 AM

As we recently covered, a judge had ordered the CIA to explain its ridiculous FOIA response tactics. The CIA had, with a straight face, first claimed it could ONLY produce hard copies of digital files from an internal security journal. Then, it said the only way it could create digital files was by printing out the files and re-scanning them. The judge noted in her order that Congress recognized government agencies would be reluctant to hand over documents to the public, which is why it directed agencies to make every reasonable effort to accommodate requests. This, of course, was not what the legislators had in mind when they crafted the Freedom of Information Act.

Now, it's the FBI being asked by a judge to explain its overuse of FOIA exemptions to withhold documents. This time, it's the (in)famous Ryan Shapiro suing our government for access to information. Shapiro is well-known by the FBI, which has attempted to shut down the prolific requester by simply refusing his FOIA requests. It justifies this violation of the FOIA by claiming (somewhat accurately) that Shapiro is utilizing a "mosaic" method to gain access to information the FBI clearly wants to keep hidden. The theory is that with enough overlapping requests, responses will turn up either different documents or inconsistent redactions, thus revealing potentially sensitive information.

Shapiro currently has six open FOIA-related lawsuits (five vs. the DOJ and one vs. the CIA). This one, originally filed in April of last year, centers on Occupy Houston-related FBI documents. Continue>>>

March 21, 2014 10:04 AM

Mayor Alvin Brown says he's beefing up the city's website to put more information about city government at the fingertips of citizens.

Earlier this week, the City of Jacksonville was recognized by the First Amendment Foundation for having the most transparent city website in Florida. Meanwhile, on Thursday, Brown announced the launch of

"Open government is good government," said Mayor Brown in a release. "It's essential that our city government is transparent and citizens have convenient access to information. We appreciate the positive recognition from the First Amendment Foundation. Our new transparency web page is the next step forward in our continuing efforts at openness and accountability." Continue>>>

March 21, 2014 10:02 AM

Following in the footsteps of tech companies and wireless carriers, Comcast issued its first transparency report today, detailing for how many customer it handed data over to federal, state, and local law enforcement. Collectively, Comcast says that it complied with 24,698 law enforcement requests regarding criminal matters — largely subpoenas, with 93 fulfilled requests for pen registers or traces, and two fulfilled requests for wiretaps. Comcast also breaks down which instances involved handing over communication content — what was said or typed — and which only involved metadata: content was handed over for 253 warrants, while metadata was supplied for 1,080 of them.

Of greater interest is Comcast's receipt of secretive national security letters and Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act information requests. Like others, Comcast is only permitted to disclose these figures in wide ranges and only on a six-month delay — as such, its first figures only represent the first six months of 2013. Comcast says that it received between 0 and 999 national security letters and 0 and 999 FISA orders. In both cases, between 0 and 999 customer accounts were affected as a result of the requests.

Comcast's national security requests are quite a bit lower than other service providers. Verizon said that it had received between 1,000 and 1,999 national security letters, and AT&T said it had received between 2,000 and 2,999. Though Verizon did not disclose its FISA requests, AT&T said that it received a staggering 35,000 and 35,999 requests — dramatically higher than the under 1,000 that Comcast received. That's likely a matter of AT&T's breadth as a wireless carrier: telephone metadata has been a focal point of FISA requests, and the major difference in figures suggests that traditional cable companies and ISPs may be less of interest. Continue>>>

Comcast, FOIA, open records
March 21, 2014 10:01 AM

The Florida Senate Committee on Governmental Oversight and Accountability unanimously approved Senate Bill 782, Government Data Practices. Sponsored by Senator Jeff Brandes (R-St. Petersburg), the bill is intended to move the state toward a more uniform approach to the security, collection, maintenance, disposal and sharing of data.

“Protecting Floridians’ personal information is of the utmost importance in today’s digital world,” said Senator Brandes. “Senate Bill 782 requires rules that govern the secure disposal of data collected by agencies and ensures that government retains only the information it needs. Additionally, increasing accessibility to the non-identifying information currently collected by the state government will increase transparency and accountability and most importantly further Florida’s economy.”

Senate Bill 782 moves Florida towards standardized data management and security by establishing a uniform protocol across all government and contracted websites for collecting, storing, disclosing, and ultimately disposing of personal identification information. Specifically the bill requires agency and contractor websites to disclose not only that certain collected information may be subject to disclosure as a public record, but also the entities’ privacy policy, reason for collecting the personal information, data sharing policy and the security measures taken to protect the individual’s information. It also directs agencies to establish appropriate timelines and schedules for properly disposing of data after its intended use, and defines personal identification information as data that may be used to identify a unique individual. Additionally, OPPAGA will be directed to create a report that identifies the records that contain personal identification information held by executive or legislative branches of government to give policy-makers a better understanding of what data is presently collected and how to better inform the public. Continue>>>

March 21, 2014 9:59 AM

As part of national Sunshine Week, members of the Madison student and professional chapters of the Society of Professional Journalists fanned out across the capital city, handing out fortune cookies.

We dropped a handful in the offices of elected officials, from the Madison School Board to Gov. Scott Walker, as well as to some unelected boards such as the University of Wisconsin System Board of Regents.

Each cookie contained a wise and honorable message: "You will be open and transparent when conducting public business." "You will uphold the letter and the spirit of the Wisconsin open records and open meetings laws." "A year of good fortune showers those who revere open government."

The fortune cookies and their messages serve as a reminder to those elected or appointed to do the public's business that they work for you: the voting and taxpaying public. Here are some examples from over the past year that illustrate why these Sunshine Week reminders, no matter how gimmicky, are needed: Continue>>>

March 21, 2014 9:58 AM

You know Sunshine Week is here by the obligatory blitz of editorials in newspapers owned by companies that spend loftily on corporate digs and six-figure bonuses for their executives.

They do this while mostly ignoring the need for taking government to task – and court – for its glaring disregard for conducting business in the open.

There are heroes on Michigan’s open records front, and they don't hail from the news industry.

I’ve been fortunate to meet and talk with a number of these folks over the past year. Continue>>>

Michigan, sunshine week
March 21, 2014 9:57 AM

If you’ve been watching what goes on in Washington and some statehouses across the country, you might wonder if there’s any issue that everyone should be able to agree on whether they are conservative or liberal or libertarian, Democrat or Republican, pro-this or anti-that.

There is: It’s the need for transparency in all levels of government.

As we observe Sunshine Week in Michigan and around the country to encourage openness in government, the Michigan Coalition for Open Government (MiCOG) is urging citizens and public officials to seek transparency in the operations of their local and state governments, their schools and universities, their federal government and their courts. Continue>>>

Iowa, sunshine week
March 19, 2014 9:41 AM

This week, national media, in cooperation with the First Amendment Foundation, is promoting citizen access to, and transparency in government.
This is Sunshine Week. At a time when distrust of government — local, state and national — appears to be at an all-time high, transparency and accountability has never been more important. This week, that importance to our participatory democracy is being recognized through Saturday.
When it comes to open government, Florida has tended to lead the nation. One could say that Florida’s “Government in the Sunshine” is viewed as a sacred right by its residents, the media and even some politicians. It should be.
But there are continuous efforts by politicians, lobbyists and government officials to push the envelope. Indeed, there are already more than 1,000 exemptions to the state’s open government laws. Continue>>>

March 19, 2014 9:29 AM

This is Sunshine Week, a time to promote transparency in government. An AP analysis found that the Obama administration, which came into office promising to be the most transparent ever, has become more secretive.

Fortunately, things are better out here with our California governments, state and local. Today California Forward, a reform group, released its new report, “Rebooting Finance Disclosure.” It found that, while the state has made great strides in releasing campaign-related information, “Governments in California need to accelerate their embrace of technology, and a good place to begin is transparency of elections-related data.”

Put another way, making data available isn’t much use unless citizens can have ready and easy access to it. Continue>>>

March 19, 2014 9:28 AM

Governor Andrew M. Cuomo today honored Sunshine Week by issuing a one-year report on Open NY, an initiative aimed at increasing citizens' engagement with their government, and encouraging New Yorkers to visit the State's comprehensive data transparency website, Data.NY.Gov. The Open NY One-Year Report, which reviews accomplishments and sets the stage for the future of the initiative, is available on Data.NY.Gov.

“Open NY has broken down artificial barriers and used technology that has put an unprecedented amount of information at New Yorkers’ fingertips,” Governor Cuomo said. “This convenient and easily comparable access to the workings of state government is a testament to the work we have done to make government more accessible, more modern, and more efficient.”

Open NY: Transparency in the Digital Age
The ultimate goal of the Open NY initiative is to increase public trust by leveraging the collective genius of our citizenry to increase transparency and improve government performance. The Governor signed Executive Order 95 last March, which recognized that government’s responsibility to provide information to the public through affirmative disclosure has changed in the digital age. The order required for the first time that New York State agencies continually review and catalogue their data for publication in an open format online. It further required the State to create and maintain a website that provides, organizes, and makes searchable open data. That website, Data.NY.Gov, had more information than any other state data site at launch, including over 200 datasets, maps, and charts from over 30 state agencies and authorities. Continue>>>

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