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Will Government Employees Publicly Oppose #FreeTHOMAS?

June 5, 2012 - by David Moore

Update June 6th 7pm ET: hmm, some encouraging words from House GOP Leadership, summarized expertly by our ally Daniel Schuman: Major Transparency Milestone in Bulk Access Statement.

 … we’ll be watching to see the actual empirical process & progress of the bulk data task force, but indeed, over on the micropublishing service we’re having some mild non-defeatism. Which is rare, after ten years facing this unnecessary roadblock. More to come. Huge thank-yous to everyone who participated in our #FreeTHOMAS wiki whip campaign & wrote letters opposing the anti-transparency bill, H.R. 5882, and spread the word. Hmmm.


THOMAS.loc.gov is the public-facing website for federal legislative information – bills, actions, votes, etc. The many closed databases that populate THOMAS are, for practical purposes, the primary source of laws from the U.S. Congress. These laws shape the experience of our contemporary lives & political landscape. Health care, the economy, education, the environment, technology, everything imaginable. Congressional legislation is indisputably a vital national public resource. As a basic principle of government transparency & accounabitliy, public data ought to be be open to the public, in full, in accordance with the Principles of Open Government Data. Full stop. We found out this week that, unfortunately, the status quo holds: Congress refuses to make THOMAS’ databases open to the public. #FreeTHOMAS now.

#OpenGovData is a necessary but not sufficient condition of open government. We do not have open government data for THOMAS; therefore, we lack open government in the federal legislative branch – indeed, in nearly all state & local governments. All the lip service & intra-government initiatives have failed at delivering a libre & open THOMAS. But we’re correct, I believe, in focusing our efforts on most-prominent entities first (the House & Senate) as we move towards a less sytemically-corrupt representative democracy and towards a more participatory democracy. In the short term, we can generate public outrage at this refusal; in the medium term, cohort replacement will surely bring in government staffers & elected officials who appreciate the potential of open data on the open Web. 

To obtain this public data, we must negotiate with members of both chambers of Congress & their staffs; government employees, and other technical & legal stakeholders. In the case of members of Congress, there is no sufficient accountability from Congress-to-Congress. In the case of the House subcommittee, we are clearly not negotiating with good-faith parties. Their latest actions are an unhidden affront. They fundementally don’t believe in open government data for greater government transparency. Where do government employees – of LoC, Law Library of Congress, LIMS, CRS, others – stand? 

Since Josh Tauberer launched GovTrack in 2001, he has engaged in good-faith efforts to streamline this process (rather than scrape THOMAS’ HTML) and open it up for government watchdogs, civic hackers, and the open-data community. That’s unbelievable - 10 years of this refusal from the LoC decision-makers. 

OpenCongress launched publicly in Feb. 2007 – bringing in official government information from GovTrack and other data sources, we join Josh’s calls for bulk data access & open standards in order to deliver real-time info to our millions of web visitors. My latest testimony from Feb. 2012 here; my outraged OC Blog coverage here; our #FreeTHOMAS wiki whip campaign here. As you can see with our wiki project, we’re prioritizing our limited resources towards evangelizing for #opengovdata for the public benefit. 

The Open House Project called for bulk data access in 2007 and succeeded in working the inside-the-Beltway game for two years, at which point it obtained a statement from Congress articulating support for bulk data access. See p. 1770. This Act of Congress was subsequently ignored by parties – including LoC. Extensive links & resources on bulk data access to THOMAS on Transparency Hub on the OC Wiki, compiled by Sunlight Foundation Policy staff & community. The Bulk Data Task force never produced tangible effects. 

In Nov. 2007, Donny & David w/ PPF attended the Open Gov Data meeting in Sebastapol, CA. Workshop participants: 

Carl Malamud (Public.Resource.Org), Tim O’Reilly (O’Reilly Media), Greg Elin (Sunlight Foundation), Micah Sifry (Sunlight Foundation), Adrian Holovaty (EveryBlock), Daniel X. O’Neil (EveryBlock), Michal Migurski (Stamen Design), Shawn Allen (Stamen Design), Josh Tauberer (GovTrack.US), Lawrence Lessig (Stanford), Dan Newman (MapLight.Org), John Geraci (outside.in), Edwin Bender (Inst. for Money), Tom Steinberg (My Society), David Moore (Participatory Politics), Donny Shaw (Participatory Politics), JL Needham (Google), Joel Hardi (Public.Resource.Org), Ethan Zuckerman (Berkman), Greg Palmer (NewCo), Jamie Taylor (MetaWeb), Bradley Horowitz (Yahoo), Zack Exley (New Organizing Institute), Karl Fogel (Question Copyright), Michael Dale (Metavid), Joseph Lorenzo Hall (UC Berkeley), Marcia Hofmann (EFF), David Orban (Metasocial Web), Will Fitzpatrick (Omidyar Network), Aaron Swartz (Open Library)

… despite all this tech & legal & public-benefit heft & firepower, we’ve been unable to make these a reality in the past five years. Unbelievable. And this is just the start of what we ought to have, thanks to free technology & open-source software & user-focused web development… we ought to have #GitLaw, and metadata about campaign contributions, scientific peer review, and much more for a truly modern & trustworthy legislative process. 

Edited June 6th 9am ET: Attendees of the Legislative Data & Transparency Conference from Feb. 2012, I invite you to publicly stand behind the House Approps Subcommittee statements & those of Rep. Crenshaw (R, FL-04) as Chair. To be clear, I realize there are overlapping jurisdictions & leaderships involved – I realize staff can’t set priorities unilaterally – but right now, Rep. Crenshaw’s flawed report doesn’t have any public critics or pushback from LoC. We have no recourse to fight back against H.R. 5882’s demonstrably false premises. So not going ‘ad hominem’ – just inviting anyone to be available for public discussion & ongoing productive engagement. The #opengov community will help build bulk data access efficiently. It’s technically straightforward. There is no real debate about that. And from outside the Beltway culture, it’s head-shaking unbelievable that the public & OpenCongress still don’t have bulk bill data in real-time for watchdogging Congress. What a terribly harmful – yet avoidable – deficit in open data & public knowledge & simple access to legal information. 

New names this morning: Dr. Billington, on behalf of LoC; Davita Vance-Cooks, on behalf of GPO; invite you to take a stand on behalf of your insitutions. Is there any LoC or GPO employee who will take public responsibility for the status quo in which we lack #opengovdata? Is there anyone reading this – an LoC official, a Congressional staffer – who will publicly assert, “I don’t believe that public data should be fully open to the public”? If not – given that there hasn’t been – isn’t that an indication the status quo is misguided & unacceptable? If unacceptable, shouldn’t there be a public path to remediation? If public accountability, let’s get started – and if that path is too obfuscated, that’s a separate issue to tackle aggressively, n’est-ce pas? So Dr. Billington, Ms. Vance Cooks, I won’t hold my breath, but…  

… simply email me, david at opencongress.org, with a statement of your support for Rep. Crenshaw’s statement as leader of the House Appropriations Subcommittee. Feel free to go into detail supporting his concern over authenticity and / or preserving the integrity of legislative info in .pdf documents or whatever. I’ll print it as-is here on the OC Blog, in its own post, without critical commentary. Same for Rep. Crenshaw’s office, if anyone cares to take responsibility for this foot-dragging intransigence. 

Before that, I’ll even point again to our critiques, in advance – please see this response from Daniel Schuman & Eric Mill of our allies the Sunlight Foundation, for accessible starters, and many more details from Rob Richards at Legal Informatics Blog.

  • Authentication is not a sound concern. It is a trivial technical issue that already has a solution. Don’t hide behind this flimsy bullshit. No technical expert takes that seriously. 
  • Bulk data access & XML formats can be superceded by additional, complementary or supplementary methods – but they offer a bare minimum start towards compliance with #opengovdata principles. Nothing less than this is acceptable. It is way, way past time for this starter measure. 
  • It would be genuinely refreshing if any of the above gov’t employees typed, “On behalf of THOMAS, we fundamentally don’t believe in open government data as a necessary condition of government transparency. We don’t actually seek to provide this or prioritize it. We agree, the next task force is a red herring. We didn’t even try to hide our contempt for this issue. It is our perception & contention that bulk legislative data is not desired or sought-after or used by the public at large, and it’s not our responsibility to respond to requests for it over 10+ years.” At least in such a hypothetical, we’d be having an honest discourse on the open Web. I would look forward to such a contest, as would millions of OpenCongress visitors who are just becoming aware of this issue and have just started mobilizing. 

To the above-mentioned individuals: feel free to call me on Skype at davidmooreppf if you prefer to chat voice over this. I look forward to seeing if anyone bothers to write me to defend Rep. Crenshaw’s leadership maneuver. You can understand my chagrin with the lack of meaningful public discourse around this and the obfuscations of the subcommittee. Rep. Crenshaw’s office never responded to my inquiry, of course, or that from Josh at GovTrack. (More info on this campaign.)  

Technologists at LoC: care to make a public statement on H.R. 5882 (the anti-transparency bill)? Care to make an unattributed one? How about an off-the-record one? Ask Daniel or John w/ Sunlight, they can vouch for my credibility in this specific case — you have my word I won’t name names in an unattributed comment. Let’s focus public pressure on LoC decision-makers. 

Thanks to Megan Kuhagen for her post today on personal site Library Lulu; but with respect & appreciations of her insights & expertise, she doesn’t speak on behalf of THOMAS or decision-makers at LoC. Let’s have a public dialogue – one way or the other. Questions & feedback welcome, ping me anytime, davidmooreppf on AIM or david at opencongress.org on email. We want to focus on more meaningful civic engagement projects; this fight is an inefficient allocation of #opengov community’s limited resources, given the lack of good-faith responses from Congress – even midway through 2012. Preposterous. Liberate OpenGovData now. Email your senators and representative via OpenCongress to oppose H.R. 5882

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Comments

  • drm 06/05/2012 6:51pm

    How about flipping the script: given Rep. Issa’s #FreeTHOMAS amendment today, will any gov’t officials or LoC staffers or THOMAS technologists email me to support the #opengovdata amendment? Only on this specific bulk-data question, of course. No answer as of this writing to my previous challenge, as expected. Lack of public discourse around this pressing need.

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