For 29 years, San Francisco Bay Area journalists have gathered in mid-March — around the birthday of founding father and free-press advocate James Madison — to recognize reporters, attorneys, citizens, and others who fight to shake or keep information free.
The act of standing up to defend the principle of freedom of information can be rather unglamorous, sometimes leading to grueling lawsuits. It’s grown even more complicated with the rise of the Internet, the decline of traditional newspapers, and the dawn of an Information Age that delivers instantaneous material that is at once more slippery and abundant than ever.
And yet, the digital realm has opened up a whole new battlefield in the fight for open access to relevant information the public needs to know. This year, the Northern California chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists’ Freedom of Information Committee took the rare step of granting a posthumous Public Service James Madison Award to Internet activist Aaron Swartz.
As a leader in the digital rights movement, Swartz, who died at the age of 26 by taking his own life, was on the forefront of a movement that fought to uphold open access to information in the face of a corporate power grab that threatened to result in online censorship.
The fight against SOPA (the Stop Online Piracy Act) and PIPA (the Protect Intellectual Property Act) in early 2012 marked just one of Swartz’s accomplishments as he fought for free and open access to information. Among his other contributions was RECAP, an online listing of court materials that allowed free access to documents held in the federal, paywall-protected court filing system called PACER.
To commemorate Swartz’s work, the Bay Guardian presents in this issue an illustrated history of his activism. While recipients of James Madison Awards have typically been individuals who took on government bureaucracies to wrest information out of the shadows and into the public eye, Swartz’s battle revolved around freeing information that is locked up by private interests, or protected by copyright.
“We need to take information, wherever it is stored, make our copies and share them with the world,” he wrote in a 2008 essay titled “Guerilla Open Access Manifesto.” “We need to take stuff that’s out of copyright and add it to the archive. We need to buy secret databases and put them on the Web. We need to download scientific journals and upload them to file sharing networks.”
But first, here are a few updates on the fight for open access to information in San Francisco and beyond.
NO SHINING EXAMPLE
In 1999, San Francisco voters enacted a law to strengthen citizens’ access to government records and public meetings. To ensure that the open-access law was properly upheld, it also created a local body called the Sunshine Ordinance Task Force.
At each meeting, San Franciscans frustrated by their inability to get the information they sought from city bureaucracies appear before the board to air their grievances, in the hopes that the decisions to withhold documents will be reversed. Typically, citizens lodge around 100 complaints per year, according to task force clerk Victor Young.
But the Sunshine Ordinance Task Force has not been going at full speed for some time now. There’s a backlog of 62 cases, in part because the body could not legally meet for five months in 2012 because it did not have a member who was physically disabled, in accordance with the law establishing criteria for who can serve. (The previous member to meet the criteria, Bruce Wolfe, was denied reappointment. In an op-ed published in political blog Fog City Journal, task force member Rick Knee links this and the Board of Supervisors’ general foot-dragging on Sunshine with a political skirmish dating back to 2011, when the task force found the Board of Supervisors to be in violation of the Sunshine Ordinance.)
There have been two vacant seats on the task force for around two years, as well as two holdover members whose terms have technically expired. Applicants have sought out those seats, but the Board of Supervisors Rules Committee hasn’t gotten around to appointing new members; the most recent appointment was made in October of 2012, according to Alisa Miller, Rules Committee clerk.
Come April 27, meanwhile, all of the current task force members’ terms will expire. Miller said she expects the Board of Supervisors to revisit nominations before the end of April. There are a grand total of 10 applications for all 11 seats. Given all of this, plus a lawsuit revolving around the city’s refusal disclose how the City Attorney’s Office advises agencies on Sunshine Ordinance interpretations, San Francisco is going through some dark days for open government.
Anyone who’s ever tried to request public documents from government officials under the Freedom of Information Act knows that it feels more like a bureaucratic nightmare than a federal right. But a new project from the Center for Investigative Reporting is hoping to streamline the entire process into a (relatively) painless procedure.
FOIA Machine (foiamachine.org) is a website to request public documents at the federal, state, or local level, and is described by its creators as the “TurboTax for government records.”
“We wanted to make the FOIA experience better for journalists,” said Shane Shifflett, a data reporter at The Huffington Post who helped build the tool. “We built up a prototype and applied for grants. Then we put it on Kickstarter and it went crazy. That gave us a lot of confidence to see it through to the end.”
On Kickstarter, FOIA Machine raised over $53,000 from more than 2,000 backers, more than triple its goal.
FOIA Machine allows registered users to prepare requests, search a database of contacts, track the status of a request, and work with a community of fellow users.
Shifflett considers the community aspect to be the site’s strongest feature. “It’s crowdsourcing, so as people create requests, they can add contacts into the database. Now there will be a history of who worked with who, and it makes the process of figuring out where to send requests so much simpler.”
The site is still in development, and users who try to register promptly receive an email asking them to “stay tuned” for information in the coming weeks and months. Shifflett said that the group hopes for FOIA Machine to be up and running by June.
LEAK US YOUR DOCUMENTS
From time to time, sources have told us at the Bay Guardian that they would love to share sensitive information for news articles, but fear they would be retaliated against or even terminated from employment if they were to do so.
We have found a way around that.
Sources who wish to retain their anonymity while sharing information they believe the public has a right to know now have the option of using an encrypted submission system to anonymously send documents to our news team.
Created by Bay Area technologists in partnership with the San Francisco Bay Guardian, BayLeaks uses the latest cryptography software to protect the identities of our sources. This is a secure, anonymous way for concerned citizens to communicate with journalists to release information.
Our system uses SecureDrop, a whistleblowing platform managed by the Freedom of the Press Foundation, and Tor, an online anonymity network that has gained the trust of Internet users around the world.
To learn more, visit sfbg.com/bayleaks-intro
MONEY IN POLITICS
It’s not really a secret that big money has a colossal influence on politics, but the groups and individuals that write those hefty checks to lawmakers often prefer to stay secret themselves. And while political donations aren’t illegal, most voters would like to know exactly who is funding a piece of legislation or a political campaign, and where that money is coming from.
Fortunately for us in California, we already have a resource to easily find that information.
“There’s a collective influence of money in our political system,” said Pamela Behrsin, spokesperson for MapLight, a nonpartisan research organization based in Berkeley that tracks the influence of money in politics. “Our founders said, ‘Look at all this money, and how this legislator voted on this bill. Do you think the money had any influence on how the legislator voted?'”
Through the website, users can also search by bill or proposition to find, for example, that big companies such as Philip Morris spent nearly $48 million to defeat Prop. 29, a proposed cigarette tax in California, on the June 2012 ballot. Supporters of the tax, such as the American Cancer Society and Lance Armstrong Foundation, could only muster a quarter of that amount.
“There’s a whole breadth of people wanting to understand the problem of money and politics,” Behrsin said. “This is one of the largest issues in our democracy right now. People are starting to stand up and say unless we get money out of our system, it’s going to be that much more difficult to fix.”