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Next Steps in #FreeTHOMAS Campaign

June 7, 2012 - by David Moore

Hypothetical- you care about an issue: catastrophic climate degradation, net neutrality, extreme income inequality, single-payer health care, student loan forgiveness. Let’s say the U.S. Congress has public information about this issue that is of core relevance, but refuses to open the primary source data to the public in full. For well over five years, technical & public-interest advocates outside government have worked in good-faith efforts to educate Congress that the data can straightforwardly be released & safeguarded – indeed, the data is already being screen-scraped several times a day & provided to free public Web resources (as best as possible). An Act of Congress calls explicitly for the information to be released. Several previous task forces failed to have real-world effects and clouded the issue unnecessarily, with no accountability or communication or recourse for open data advocates. 

Instead, House majority leadership issues a sudden statement calling for yet another task force to immediately commence work moving towards releasing the data. The task force is comprised of the same unmotivated parties (LoC, GPO) that previously dragged their feet and raised unsound hurdles. Plus it’s just over 150 days to a frenzied & toxic Presidential election. And the Senate still has to agree to everything, and the Senate is essentially un-democratic. One’s skepticism would be entirely justified. 

Clearly, this is the context of yesterday’s something-of-a-surprise announcement that GOP House leadership is calling for bulk access to legislative info to happen … though there are no assurances it’ll be this 112th Congress, no timeline, no teeth, no #opengov or public participation. Hence my skepticism. Don’t miss takes by Daniel Schuman at Sunlight & Josh Tauberer at GovTrack & Rob Richards at Legal Informatics. To be impatient in context for a minute, I shouldn’t be writing this, and we shouldn’t be allocating our limited resources on this most-basic issue. Free technology, libre content & open-source software give us tools to make the federal legislative process far, far more participatory & reality-based than it currently is. The harmful effects of our current systemically-corrupt Congress are massive & well-understood. We ought to have real-time disclosure of campaign donations as meta-data on bill text sections; GitLaw for public & expert input; all as a step towards a more Liquid Democracy in the U.S.

We ought to be at least that far, because the data & technology exists to make them happen. There is clearly no institutional momentum in Congress or the Law Library for transparency or public accountability. We can’t trust the current U.S. Congress to reform itself or voluntarily disclose its workings at the most-basic level. Instead of continuing to submit OC’s formal testimony & real-person testimonials to hostile, mute subcommittees, we could be working on greater issues of public participation in our representative democracy & core electoral reforms. We should not have had to go to the wall to obtain bulk data from THOMAS, just as we shouldn’t have had to pull the emergency level to kill net censorship legislation like SOPA. The system ought to be more accountable & less closed-off from go. But here we are, clamoring that public data should be made public, and still hitting walls. So the #FreeTHOMAS campaign will keep watching for tangible milestones and demand meaningful public participation along the way. In the broken world of the Beltway, this counts as a not-loss, for what that’s worth. Congress is still so terribly broken. More to come from #opengov community on bulk data access until it’s an accepted reality. 

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