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 http://foiadvocate.blogspot.com/.
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August 6, 2014 6:17 AM

Rejoice, O lovers of privacy! For Open WhisperSystems has released Signal for iPhone, which gives any and every iPhone wielder the power to fully encrypt their calls against prying ears — and is completely compatible with OWS’s time-tested and well-liked RedPhone for Android.

Under the hood, Signal uses push notifications to initiate calls, Amazon Web Services to route the data, and the ZRTP protocol, developed by Phil Zimmerman, to encrypt conversations end-to-end. You don’t need a new password or a new number; it’s built to Just WorkTM. Oh, and your call’s metadata is protected/discarded as well.

The code is open-source and has an interesting contributor funding model, too; every merged pull request is rewarded with some of the Bitcoin donated to the project as a whole. Continue>>>
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August 4, 2014 9:08 AM

Four Fort Smith city directors were dismissed from a lawsuit alleging violations of the Arkansas Freedom of Information Act according to a Thursday (July 31) court filing.

City Directors George Catsavis, Keith Lau, Mike Lorenz and Vice Mayor Kevin Settle were all released from the lawsuit that alleges the FOIA violation after Lorenz had called City Clerk Sherri Gard requesting two items be removed from meeting agendas. Gard then contacted all members of the Board to determine if there was adequate support to remove the items. A city ordinance passed in the 1970s allows removal of items from a meeting agenda if four directors notify the city clerk of their desire to have the item removed.

Attorney Joey McCutchen, representing Fort Smith resident Jack Swink, said Saturday (Aug. 2) that the removal of the four city directors was due to the elected officials' lack of understanding of the Arkansas FOIA law prior to the polling having been conducted by Gard. Continue>>>
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August 4, 2014 9:07 AM

Over at The Atlantic, Conor Friedersdorf has an excellent piece on Jason Leopold's FOIA lawsuit to obtain former NSA chief Keith Alexander's financial disclosure statements.

Since moving on from the NSA, Alexander has parlayed his role as one of the nation's top spies into a lucrative consulting career. Like one does these days. However, the NSA has steered a novel course and argued Alexander's financial disclosure statements, which are required by law to reveal potential conflicts of interest, are exempt from disclosure because—brace yourself for government logic—Alexander's identity must be protected.

The law cited by the NSA serves a very real purpose: to shield the identity of intelligence community members. But here the NSA is arguing that the nation's security would be imperiled by revealing the details of how a public figure peddles his expertise for "as much as $1 million a month," according to Bloomberg. Continue>>>
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August 4, 2014 9:02 AM

A non-profit watchdog group in Washington D.C. is criticizing Chattanooga's EPB over the costs associated with a recent open records request. A UTC student, and intern for the group, says he was slapped with a large fee after wanting to know more about how much the publicly-owned provider spends on advertising.

"They're not a private business. They're not Comcast. They're not Charter," says Ethan Greene. Ethan Greene says he was hit with a large fee when he filed an open records request to look into EPB's advertising agreements and spending, as well as emails from top management, spanning from 2012 to March 2014.

"In order for me to view those records, not to receive copies, but just to view them, that I first had to pay the fee that they assessed of $1,767.07," says Greene. He filed the request at the end of March. To see if the cost would drop, he filed separate requests in April but the fee stayed the same. In May, he wrote a check. "I got help from the Taxpayers Protection Alliance. I mean, it was in my bank account, it came from my checking account that I paid." Continue>>>
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August 4, 2014 8:59 AM

Some of our readers came up with a brilliant plan today to launch a coordinated FOIA (Freedom of information act) campaign. You can see how this came about in the comments section of last nights post 7/31/14. I think its a great idea.I believe we have a distinguished guest participating occasionally in our comments section as well. We should come up with the search terms, date’s etcetera. It will be very helpful to coordinate everything from this one post to avoid redundant requests.

For starters, I think we should request documents related to the discovery issues. We also can come up with many of our own. Dan W already had this idea, “I’m considering it. I think the FHFA’s admission in its report to congress that there was a conflict of interest between being a Fannie Mae / Federal National Mortgage Assctn Fnni Me (OTCBB:FNMA) and Freddie Mac / Federal Home Loan Mortgage Corp (OTCBB:FMCC) regulator and conservator would be an interesting on to FOIA on “.

I will be updating this post as we proceed. Here are the links to both the FHFAs and the treasury departments FOIA web pages. Continue>>>
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August 4, 2014 8:58 AM

From Open the Government: Earlier this year, Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VIT) and Senator John Cornyn (R-TX) introduced S. 2520, the FOIA Improvement Act. The bill has generated a lot of enthusiasm in the open government community because it puts reins on agencies' overuse of the exemption covering "pre-decisional material" by requiring that they weigh the public interest in the release of the record.

The bill also strengthens the Office of Government Information Services, which was created in 2007 to help enforce the law and to help settle FOIA disputes out of court, and makes other common-sense changes to the way agencies process requests for records. Time is short, though! While the House already passed a similar bill, there are several steps the bill must go through before it can be written into law. "Read more" to find out more about the bill, and how you can help. Continue>>>
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August 4, 2014 8:55 AM

Government units inform Americans about important actions taken or contemplated by placing public notice advertisements, or “legals,” in newspapers. This practice, as old as the United States, is no less valuable in an electronic age than it was when homes were lit by candlelight.

But today, some state and local elected officials argue that public notice advertisements should disappear from newspapers – replaced by postings on their government websites.

That would be a mistake. Besides democratic principles, there are multiple reasons for using Indiana newspapers to convey information that the state legislature has mandated to be shared with Hoosiers. CONSIDER THIS: Using newspapers inserts an independent third party with an incentive to make sure the notice is published on time and accurately. Continue>>>
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August 1, 2014 11:41 AM

Using a litigation grant from the National Freedom of Information Coalition’s Knight FOI Fund, a coalition of news media companies –the Carroll County Times, Washington Post, Baltimore Sun and Scripps Media’s WMAR-TV—successfully challenged the Carroll County (MD) Board of Commissioners under Maryland’s Public Information Act (MPIA).

County commissioners were ordered by a judge to produce all email distribution lists that they use to send messages to select groups of their supporters.

The lawsuit began after a February 2013 request to the commissioners by Carroll County Times journalist, Christian Alexandersen, for copies of the commissioners' email distribution lists.  The commissioners maintained categorized groups of constituent email addresses. For example, Commissioner Robin Bartlett Frazier maintained a list called "Republic Women's Club of Taneytown."  “Conservative Counties” was the name of a distribution list maintained by Commissioner Richard Rothschild. The reporter requested the email addresses on these and all other lists each commissioner had compiled.

The newspaper's public records requests for the lists were greeted by pleas to back off, even intimidation. The commissioners pursued a legislative effort to change the MPIA and ultimately initiated a legal challenge stating they could withhold the lists under a provision in the MPIA that allows non-disclosure when releasing records “would cause substantial injury to the public interest.”

They lost.

With help from NFOIC and the Knight Foundation FOI grant, the coalition of news media companies had filed a countersuit against the County Commissioners under the conventional provisions of MPIA. Holland & Knight LLP in Washington, D.C., represented the media coalition in the case.  In a 20-page ruling retired Howard County Circuit Judge Dennis M. Sweeney rejected the county's arguments and awarded summary judgment on the news media coalition's counterclaims. (Notably, Judge Sweeney had been assigned to the case after all local judges recused themselves.)

Read NFOIC’s news release from May 2013 awarding the Knight Fund FOI grant with more background on the challenge.

Read more about the judge’s ruling from the MDDC Press Association.

NFOIC is a national network of state FOI advocates, citizen-driven nonprofit FOI organizations, academic and First Amendment centers, journalistic societies and attorneys. Its mission is to foster government transparency at the state and local level.  more, visithttp://www.nfoic.org/.

The John S. and James L. Knight Foundation supports transformational ideas that promote quality journalism, advance media innovation, engage communities and foster the arts. The Foundation believes that democracy thrives when people and communities are informed and engaged. 

The Maryland Foundation for Open Government  promotes openness in all aspects of local, state and federal government and provides education to the public and government on all aspects of the US First Amendment and of Maryland’s Public Information Act and Open Meetings Act. 

August 1, 2014 7:29 AM

The national governments of the US, the UK, and other G7 nations have been focusing more attention on the economic value of open data, as opposed to broader societal benefits.

While pointing to evidence that open data fuels economic activity is a good rationale for the release of relevant data sets, it's far from the only impact that releasing government data can have upon the world. As I've explored in past columns, publishing open data can increase resilience against climate change, offer insight into healthcare costs and outcomes, protect consumers, and fuel accountability and transparency.

If national governments are going to invest time, money, and public attention on releasing data, they should also focus upon releases that have social benefits as well as economic outcomes. Last week, looking for fresh examples, outcomes, and emerging issues around these issues, I attended a forum on the social impact of open data hosted by the Center for Data Innovation in Washington, DC. (See video.) Continue>>>
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August 1, 2014 7:27 AM

In January 2012, I filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request with the Environmental Protection Agency asking for copies of correspondence between the EPA and various green groups active in the Marcellus Shale region. The request was filed on behalf of the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity, the parent company of Watchdog.org. The FOIA asked the agency to provide us with “any discussion and correspondence with outside groups that concerns potential regulatory action that would impact the fracking process.”

This was not an open-ended request. By design, it was limited since the Marcellus Shale cuts across Pennsylvania, New York, Ohio, Maryland, Virginia, and West Virginia. The request was also limited to the green groups most active in the region. The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), Greenpeace, the Sierra Club, Physicians for Social Responsibility, the Union of Concerned Scientists, EarthJustice, Earthjustice Legal Defense Fund, and Earthworks are among the groups named in the request. We also asked for communication between the EPA and the Park Foundation, based in Ithaca, New York, which is largely responsible for funding green activism in the region.

After going through the usual fee-waiver request, denial, and appeal process, the EPA finally said it would comply a few months later. Finally, in December 2013, Frederick No, a FOIA officer in the EPA, was kind enough to offer some material. It was very heavy on EPA research into the process of hydraulic fracturing used to extract natural gas, but very light on the actual correspondence that was requested. Still, it was at least a response, and I thank Mr. No for making the effort. Studies continue to show that the fracking process is safe and effective, but this has not dissuaded groups like the NRDC working to keep a moratorium in effect in New York, which could use the jobs that would be created with natural gas production. Meanwhile, the EPA has found a way to keep a lid on the input green groups have had in pursuing anti-energy regulations. Continue>>>
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epa, Federal Government
August 1, 2014 7:26 AM

The D.C. Superior Court has ruled that city officials engaging in business on personal email accounts to circumvent government transparency must surrender those emails in response to Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests.

According to The Washington City Paper, D.C. residents suspicious over Commissioner Dianne Barnes’ support for the McMillan Sand Filtration site in Ward 5 wanted a closer look at Barnes’ communications, and filed multiple FOIA requests to do so.

Judge Stewart Nash rejected the argument by the D.C. Attorney General’s office that personal emails aren’t subject to FOIA requests. The office asked the court to follow federal government guidelines in deciding the case, and rule that emails ”maintained on a non-governmental e-mail account, [do] not qualify as agency records subject to production under FOIA.” Continue>>>
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August 1, 2014 7:24 AM

Our state (WI) government should operate in a fully transparent way. We need to know what our elected officials are doing, how their decisions are being made, and how they are spending our money. On the other hand, private citizens should be granted a good deal of anonymity. We should be able to vote, express our opinions, and communicate with our representatives without our actions being widely publicized.

There are several recent Wisconsin political actions that reveal an alarming trend. Our state government is becoming less open and less transparent. At the same time, the anonymity of private citizens who are exercising their Constitutional rights is under increasing threat.

For example, earlier this year a law was enacted that allows partisan election observers to stand as close as three feet from the table at which voters must state their names and addresses. I don't know about you, but I really don't care to have total strangers standing one yard away when I am giving-out my personal information. This voter intimidation law, Act 177, was endorsed by State Representative Knodl and State Senator Darling. It was signed into law by Scott Walker on April 2. Continue>>>
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