75,000 FOIA Requests Can't Be Wrong: Lessons From a Decade of Transparency Spelunking
5:54PM Jul 25, 2020
public records laws
Hi everybody, welcome back to hope 2020. This next talk is going to walk through US government's fascinating hidden archives and learn the secrets on what actually works when it comes to convincing agencies to give up some of the most secretly and closely held secrets and information. The title of this talk is 75,000 foi request can't be wrong. Lessons from a decade of transparency, by Michael, who's the co founder of a company, Mark rock, a leading non for profit that runs various open source transparency tools like document cloud, in the interest of the public. We have Michael with us live today, who is going to take us through his journey and learnings. So, Michael. Let's start.
Great, thank you so much for that introduction and it's great to be back here at hope it's it's wonderful convenient and. Great to be here virtually and, and hopefully back in person in two years. So since the time I've between I submitted the request as when it actually or the proposal and when we actually did it we've actually filed, almost 10,000 more requests and so just wanted to kind of give some up to date numbers there. But it's been really exciting seeing the sort of use of public records and the interest in transparency and felt like when we started a decade ago, this was a very niche subject that it was, it was harder to kind of imagine how many people would care about government transparency, but fortunately the government has a way of kind of being our best marketing. So just a little bit of background about the organization we started a decade ago. We also now run five different services. In addition to muckrock itself we run a site called document cloud which hosts about 100 million pages of documents and helps folks analyze them we run Oh transcribe which is free transcription site for a machine another transparency tool. So, it all started with muckrock bo you knew and more and more sort of beyond in the world of transparency beyond that. And as I noted we've helped file 83,000 public records requests and all 50 states plus at the federal level and so sometimes I'll use FOIA, which is the federal law, kind of use that as a broad descriptor. But we've seen how transparency works all across the United States we are only in the US. There are some wonderful other sites that we'll talk about and a little bit outside of the US. If you're looking for information elsewhere. But we've seen kind of how well these laws can work and also all the different ways that they can't work. And right now we host over 100 million pages of documents and we reach about 40 to 80 million people each month with access to those kinds of content. So I kind of wanted to start, start by going a little bit back and talk through a little brief history of Goya. The earliest right to know law was actually adopted in Sweden in 1766 proposed by Anders Jordanians, and all of a tele which is a province in Sweden or it was a province in Sweden, and this wasn't just a sort of public records law but this was sort of a broad sort of rule around sort of right to freedom of expression, freedom of speech, freedom of thought and freedom to participate openly in government, and really at this early moment one of these early stabs at sort of a free speech rule and sort of justifying the importance of building a true democracy, what they saw as very fundamental in that was the ability to actually get government information, and so we sort of think of transparency and free speech in sort of different realms, but as you kind of look back at history, they're always intrinsically linked right. The real reason we have free speech is so that we can have sort of the ability to kind of advocate for ourselves in our community. And the only way we can do that intelligently and informally is to actually have access to raw information and so even back in 1766, they said hey you need to have the ability to kind of review government proposals reviews sort of what is being used at by the government and sort of how our rulers are kind of talking about us. And it was actually a fairly good you know pretty starting point and to basically said like, if there's regulations if there's something that impacts you if there's a judgment. You have a right to court records you have a right to sort of understand how your government works and a right to then dispute that and participate that and there should be no restrictions on free speech with some big exceptions because remember it is 1766 and so it kind of goes on and on and says it's critical that people be able to kind of debate anything and advocate for themselves and dispute anything except they're not allowed to talk bad about the king or the church right so it's a starting point. But is this interesting seeing these justifications going back hundreds of years, and sort of seeing transparency and freedom of speech and freedom of thought, are all linked, but then there was, except for the king right The king is obviously beyond sort of criticism. 200 years later.
That's when we see America pass its public records law and this was roughly the second sort of major national transparency law, and this was passed in 1966. It was signed by Lyndon B Johnson, he here is a kind of Halloween with his dog which was one of his past times, but he was actually, you know, there was a really beautiful signing statement that I've put up here. And it says that the freedom Information Act stems from our most essential principles of democracy works best when the people have all the information at the security of the nation will permit. And that really captures a why transparency is so important, but also be sort of one of the inherent tensions that has always been there with public records. Right. And so it says yes we need this transparency. Yes, you can't really have a democracy unless people know what is going on within that democracy, but there's also this limit right that, you know, military app maneuvers government secrets individual privacy all need to be protected and that's sort of at the heart of sort of what makes transparency, this tension within our government around how transparency works. I do kind of want to note that some 200 years you know earlier, you know, in the founding of America, a transparency and lack of trans government transparency is actually cited in the Declaration of Independence. So one of the complaints that the forefathers had about the king in why we decided we needed to rebel was the grievances. The king said they said that the king has called together legislative bodies that places unusual uncomfortable and distant from the depository of their public records for the sole purpose of fatiguing them into compliance with his measures right so in the very Declaration of Independence. It says, access to information needs to be made, easily available. Now it did take us till 1966 to actually pass our freedom Information Act, but it's very inherent in democracy right this is not just a good governance thing this isn't some wonky ideal but really central to the idea of democracy is giving people access to records and that's really really critical piece of being part of a democracy. But our public records kind of really hit their stride thanks for President Richard Nixon. After his resignation, all of a sudden there was all this interest in sort of Hey, maybe we should keep a closer eye on what our government is up to maybe we should have a stronger sort of push back and sort of controls around what government is up to maybe we shouldn't just trust government at their work on. And so after Ford becomes president. Then the Congress, there's a lot of bipartisan support for stronger Trade Information Act. And in addition to a stronger freedom Information Act in 1974, they also passed the Privacy Act. So, under the free information act you can request government records and unless the government tells you why this is exempt. They have to hand them over one of those exemptions is personal privacy right so I can't request somebody else's tax records, or I can't request something that doesn't have a public purpose. But under the Privacy Act which kind of goes hand in hand with the free information act, you can request information that the government has on yourself, and it's usually a fairly similar process, but you can also force the government to kind of correct misinformation that they have on you. So if they have something and say oh this person has been agitating for the overthrow of the United States and you haven't, you can actually sue the government and say, Hey, I need you to correct this information, or Hey your files on me are wrong. And I request you go in and sort of correct that which is a really powerful tool especially coming out of the Jagger Hoover era especially coming out of sort of the Nixon era where government use sort of information and misinformation is a really powerful tool and we've seen this a lot, sort of where the government will sort of, you know, sort of the the snitch jacketing where they'll sort of pretend somebody is an informant or something like that, and they'll leak out sort of misinformation or they'll leak out accurate information but it's private information to discredit their opponents, and the Privacy Act was meant as sort of a pushback against that, to give people more rights to sort of see what does the government have on me and force him to correct it if it's wrong.
This is also sort of post Watergate is also when we start to see states around the country start to get us interested in sort of public meetings public records laws and sort of enforcement of transparency, up until the 70s some states had public records laws a few passed them in the 50s and 60s. But by and large most states sort of enacted their own state public records laws in the 70s and modeled them loosely off of the federal law. A number of states had laws on the books but this was sort of when enforcement actually started happening and in the 70s at the federal level, this is when we started to see you could go to court and have a court review the government's decisions to withhold things and so the 719 74 post Nixon is when foil really got its teeth. This is also shortly after the 1970s, that's when we started seeing the US, as it likes to do kind of exporting its freedoms. You know, for good or ill. A lot of times, but, um, you know, we had the 19. The 1700s we had the Oliver tele law. and then in the 70s we had the US law. And then after that, that's when sort of free information laws started flourishing around the country. Now, this wasn't because other governments were like, oh wow the US is going to be transparent we should be transparent to largely because the business community really push for stronger transparency laws, as well as the advocacy community as well as journalists, but sort of a lot of times there was financial imperatives right. The United States started saying if you want a favorite trading partnership, you need to pass a right to information law. The World Bank, a lot of the World Bank aid was contingent on sort of transparency laws being in place. And so in the late 90s early 2000s, as we had sort of more World Bank World Trade Organization agreements. That's when you started seeing a lot of countries sort of starting to pass public records laws and sort of this becoming an international phenomenon. And today, virtually every country has at least a transparency law on the books. Some places they work a lot better than others, even Russia, China and Turkey for example they all have transparency laws on the books and mileage varies a lot, as well as potential reprisals I think one question we get a lot is sort of how dangerous can it be to file a public records request, and that's not necessarily an academic question, usually it's a fairly safe you're exercising your rights to ask questions, legally, this is something you you're allowed to do without retaliation. But for example in India for example there's been a number of cases where people filing public records requests. Then, are regarding land deals in India in particular that can often lead to violent reprisals from people who sort of over time I've kind of, you know, tried to flout the law or sort of seize land without proper authorization and that sort of thing. So, in this this time over the last 30 ish years. We saw more and more public records, being laws passing around the country, including the United Kingdom's law which was only passed in 2000. And I thought this was really really interesting because a Tony Blair, you know who kind of led the United UK into the Iraq War, I'm kind of looking back and was asked sort of like what are some of your big regrets. And one of the things he most regrets is helping the UK pass its fair information law, which is just kind of remarkable that a politician is like transparency building democracy. That was your actual regret. And so I just thought that was kind of an interesting quote, you know, and kind of shows you some priorities, but this is when different laws were passed so Sweden in 1766 America the United States in 1966, France, the late 70s and then you started seeing more and more countries kind of hopping on the bandwagon after that.
I was involved in none of this back in the late 90s. I was just really into computers and I sort of became a document order I was really interested. This was not actually my bedroom, but kind of representative of what my bedroom might have looked like. And I was a huge fan of 2600 magazine that's sort of what kind of opened my eyes to the world of Krypton and and Usenet and other places that kind of created these repositories of sort of hidden information and I was really fascinated by these ideas of sort of all this data all this information that's just out there, but you need to know where to look, or you need to know how to ask for. I was an avid collector of as many sort of PDFs as I could get from the shadier corners of Usenet and the web. And, and, sort of trying to think through sort of what can we do to kind of increase, getting interesting documents out there into the public domain, right, because I think even at that point, you know, sort of, you know, it was, it was a lot of the stuff we saw was sort of processed through news articles. It was challenging to get access to the raw documents. Right. And so I was really curious about what can we do to kind of get more information out there. Because even back in the Swedish laws. What they recognized was that access to information was really essential for access to power. And so I became interested in sort of what can we do sort of to kind of make it so that access to information wasn't just the law but something that was practically useful to more people. And so I started out my career doing a mix of sort of technology and journalism, and I became interested in sort of how do we kind of find new ways to kind of distribute the power that journalists have traditionally had into more hands became obsessed with this question of what can we do to make this kind of access more universal more complete and more useful right. Because if there's a law out there that requires government hand over information but it's so complex. Nobody knows how to use it or it's so burdensome that it's it's impractical for anybody but lawyers. That means that it's not really kind of impacting society as, as we would like it to. I'm asking I'm really interested in why there are so few other folks kind of like recognizing like hey as the internet kind of comes on that means more access to more raw documents and it also always surprised me that there are fewer folks, kind of digging into this area and kind of a really large scale. You know there were sites like crypto memory whole early versions of WikiLeaks. And they were focused on sort of leaks and occasional drips, but I was curious sort of what can we do instead of going after a big leak every once in a while, what can we do to turn on like a large faucet of access to primary source materials. There has to be some way to kind of keep interesting documents, not just coming out when a leaker comes out, but constantly coming out. And so when I kind of discovered public records we kind of got really interested in sort of seeing Hey, could we do something so that we're constantly getting interesting information out there. And we're really interested in doing in a sustainable way. That was really important to me is sort of figure out what can we do not just to help get a huge document on here and there out but what can we do to kind of constantly bring out interesting and important documents, particularly at the local level because even in the late 90s 2000s we were seeing local journalism start to constrict, and just not paying attention to sort of local corruption or not have the resources to cover local corruption, as we would like. And so, local politicians are getting doing all sorts of things and nobody was kind of checking the city budgets. Look into expense accounts to see how is this money actually being spent, etc. And so we got the idea instead of focusing on leaks. What if we kind of tapped into the sort of rich legacy of public records and these amazing transparency laws and just focus on making public records work much much better for the requester, and we made that more available so that more people could take advantage of these laws. And so in 2010, working with my co founder we bought a $20 WordPress template, this is what it looked like when we launched and hacked together just enough code to get a basic working prototype of a public records tool, you could file a request to the website. And we would kind of help you walk through it. Originally we sort of had like a wizard. So we were like TurboTax for transparency, then we realized everybody actually hates TurboTax so that's probably not a great model to build off of. But what we wanted to do is kind of make it easier to sort of file those requests.
And then, if you were working on an investigation, you could keep those requests private while you are working on that story, but then each request had sort of a Deadman switch on it and our goal was eventually make all these requests public because one of the most challenging things as a requester is understanding what you can even request and so we wanted to build a repository not just of the documents that came out of requests, but also all these different request ideas people have. And so that's what we did. And so this was sort of this was one of our very early requests was sort of, kind of, hey we help people write these requests on local campaign finance data right so there's all this discussion about federal campaign finance data, but sort of stuff gets really interesting at the local level. And we, we got a few dozen beta testers and we really excitedly pitched her idea to anyone who would listen. Things were very very manual at the start. In fact, this request campaign finance data in Somerville Massachusetts. It reminded me of the, the opening chapter of Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, where we filed this request and the court clerk was like, or the town clerk was like, Okay, if you want these documents you have to come down to the basement. It's only open for about four hours a week. They didn't have a scanner we could borrow so I had like my old cell phone camera, and I was like taking pictures of all these financial disclosures, there's like no natural light in there, but we found some really interesting stuff, even from these early requests right so like there was this out of state parking ticket company parking ticket vendor was like making massive donations to the mayor, even though the mayor was running unopposed year after year. And so, you saw these interesting connections and sort of legal kickback in terms of what these these companies were donating to support local politicians, even though is is purely transactional in terms of, hey, the city needs to buy parking tickets software we sell parking tickets offer we're going to support the mayor even though he's not running against everybody and things got a really, really interesting like that. Plus One of the really cool things we saw was that after we sort of bug these agencies enough, they started saying, Okay, well, if people are actually interested in this stuff. Instead of having to go through all this they just started proactively posting this material themselves. So not only were we getting interesting stories we were helping change, government behavior for the better, because the next year we didn't have to file this request. The agency just posted all that material proactively, and then it was just kind of transparent by default, which is the goal. And so, lesson one was just sort of the law only matters. If you can get people to to obey it. Um, I think this meme was by one of our longtime contributors, and my best. They put this together and it really kind of captures sort of the lack of care that a lot of times agencies seem to put into requests. So one of the things that we found was that early on, agencies just started, ignoring requests, or they come back to us with really large font fees for request information. And so it became really challenging to kind of just get agencies to comply with basic requests so in that case they did let us go and get those financial disclosure documents. But then other times one of our ideas for sort of seeding the site when we first started was, oh, we'll be really clever and file requests for other people's requests, then we'll just have all these requests to kind of start this kickstart the site, all the towns that we follow that request with originally we're like okay that's going to be impossible or that's going to cost hundreds of thousands of dollars to search through all of these things. And so that was really challenging to kind of get agencies to actually respond to requests and even though the law was really great. We had to figure out ways to kind of get agencies to actually comply with that law which they weren't used to at that point, because when we first started public records was something that not a lot of people are paying attention to. Um, oh well things were bad enough for dealing with agencies we also had a really hard time convincing requesters that muckrock was a better way to file requests, people were used to mailing out requests people, people who actually used for it at that point we're kind of used to it being bad, and just kind of we're used to kind of that's how the way things are done. And so when we went out to sort of veteran requesters, they would be like, Oh, boy. It works fine. Why would I ever want to use a computer to file requests.
And we were pitching the idea to everybody we could
to, to kind of get them to use the site and people journalists we talked to said oh that's just not you know I'm fine filing records requests the same old way I always have. And a lot of those records requesters they already had sort of fax machines set up. So when we first started in 2010 like fax machine was the number one way for filing requests. And we've been pitching the idea to newspapers and news chains and lawyers and veteran investigative journalists, and they said boy is fine We don't need anything. But something weird happened because even while we were trying to get more journalists to use the platform, found that people who are not traditional public records requesters started finding our site and used it in ways we hadn't expected. A lot of times requesting stuff that journalists probably would never have thought to ask. So we had cyber security professionals, asking for audits that local governments were doing. One of my favorite requests was somebody who worked within a sheriff's department started filing requests for that sheriff's department's own expense reports, because they knew that this was interesting information they didn't want to leak it. And so they could file a request and have stuff released through proper channels. We also started to look for better ways to kind of capitalize on the public nature of our requests right so agencies when agencies stalled on responding to requests, what we did was we created report cards for each agency, highlighting which agencies were the slowest and kind of shaming them into increasing their compliance. So by using the public nature of our website, we were able to exert new kinds of pressure on agencies to comply with the law. Then, a lot of times, early on we had agencies kind of saying, oh, we're going to charge you $200 if you want this information and for an individual requester that can be really prohibitive. And so we started doing crowdfunding campaigns to kind of crowdfund the cost of requests. So now we were calling these agencies bluffs because the agencies don't really call care about the $200 they just want the requester to go away. But now instead of just having an annoyed one requester now you've got hundreds of people who've put in five or $10, and you've got much more a much larger group of people interested in digging into this information when they finally released it. And so that's been kind of one of the key lessons is sort of finding new ways to kind of turn but government bureaucracy against itself and kind of use this to your advantage. So, if people say we want money. Fine, use that as an opportunity to crowdfund and build on your public interest if agencies are going to take forever, highlight that and kind of create this sort of paper trail documenting how ridiculous it is that you have to wait years for some basic documents, and that brings a wider and wider public awareness. It was kind of like trying to find all these different ways, kind of tapping into the Streisand effect. Just to kind of generate more interest in public records and generate interest in public, transparency, and one of the perfect examples of that was very early on, on our first year of operating we'd filed a request for food stamp reimbursement data so how many, how much money different grocery stores were getting under the food stamp program. This information is really helpful for researchers and people looking into food inequality, and that sort of thing. The state actually was super helpful when giving us that data, but then after they gave us that data, they decided that they didn't mean to. And so they threatened to send us to jail if we did not remove the data, but because this was a pain via public records requests were fully legally within our rights do anything we wanted with that data. And once they started threatening us that got us all this publicity, the ironic thing was that when they had just given us this data we tried to get other newsrooms to write about the data, nobody was interested in it because it was like wonky food. Food sustainability data. But then as soon as the government tried to suppress access to that data then all the people who wouldn't write about it before, are now very interested in that story.
But one of the things, next, next lesson I want to talk about but one of the things that's the boy is in so many ways is really a craft that kind of rewards patience and practice and commitment on public markets can be endlessly rewarding but only if you put in the time. I remember if you just file one or two requests, you're very likely to get rejected or have to wait a long time with them. But if it's something that you kind of build practice on if you you patient and you don't sort of say hey, I need documents in a week or two weeks, but you kind of get regularly filing and asking for information and patient about when it comes back. All eventually transparency will really pay off and all sorts of surprising and interesting ways. Now that has improved a little bit over the last few years, I think one of the stories that I always thought was really interesting was that a few years ago a woman actually had to sue so that she can inherit her dead husband's FOIA requests that were still open so like the foil request survived him. Um, but usually most requests within a few years hopefully within a few months, do you get some interesting responses, one case where we did have to wait a long time was we work with a wonderful lawyer Kyle McClanahan over at national security counselors, he sued pro bono the CIA, because they had what's called crest, which was their declassified archive of documents. But, so this is all stuff that was declassified, but the CIA said that if you actually want to review this you have to come to our office, sit at this tiny computer and have a security camera, watching your every movement as you're searching through this database we said this is ridiculous it's a declassified database, just give us a copy of the hard drive on this computer and we'll post it online. And so eventually after three years, we got the CIA to publicly release all this material that had secretly previously been sort of kept away in this office, and that took a long time it took a lot of persistence, there's a lot of really complex legal maneuverings, but eventually sort of that and sort of other activists campaigns to kind of get this information, released meant that we had this massive new way to kind of look into the history of the CA and in the history of the United States right because they're being able to kind of look at all the United States sort of behind the scenes work, um, at the national stage really kind of was was helpful for really researchers and historians, to understand how things were going. And it was just a really amazing research Trove. Um, but then once you get the documents. It's important to actually find ways to kind of go through them on those 30 million pages, we're not going to read themselves. So are truly tremendous former editor j Patrick Brown kind of spent painstakingly researched and found so many really fascinating stories in that archive I just kind of searching through that archive and sort of seeing what are the stories from yesterday that still resonated today. If you want to check out some of those documents as well as a guide to the best ways to search through the crust archive that link down there kind of links back right back to that. And we have tips and tricks and a lot of related articles. For example, he found a classified picture of the moon and this is sort of a fun pastime is kind of looking through all the ridiculous things that the CIA would would classify, one of my favorites was the East Coast, West Coast office fight between sort of champagne at the CIA and sort of which, which champagne was better. Um, over time we got pretty good at sort of getting documents, out of different agencies. This is just sort of a graph of how many requests we held filed. So as you can see sort of it started very slowly the first few years and recently has been picking up a lot. And as we help more and more people file public records requests, we've been getting back millions and millions of pages so we get back hundreds of thousands of pages each month. And as we talked about earlier one of my goals is figure out how do you go from turning on getting the occasional drip of a leak to turn it on a spigot of information. And we found a way to kind of get that spigot.
and so over time. Our some of our goals have shifted from focusing on sort of, what can we do to kind of help get documents to what can we do to kind of help people actually go through all of the information we're obtaining. And what are new ways that we can kind of collective harness collective interest in this to kind of build up more interest in public records more actual impact from government transparency. And what what our goal is not just make government transparent, but make that transparency participatory make it possible for people to actually engage with this material in new and interesting ways. And so part of that is sort of launching new projects that involve not just sort of getting information, but also kind of going through it and sort of making that information locally and relevant. And so, earlier this year our senior reporter barrel liftin led our partnership with Freddie Martinez, who is also speaking at hope. He's already open the Gov. And what we did was we use this project to organize folks to request facial recognition technology usage documents from police departments around the country. And then we sort of methodically started combing through all the documents that came back, based on people's suggestions we file 288 requests, all around the country, and going through those documents we discovered this then unknown company called Clearview AI. And before we follow all these requests, nobody had heard of this because they were just kind of working secretly with police departments, but they had this sort of massive specially scraped database, sort of social media pictures that they then plugged into sort of a basic AI, machine learning algorithm, police departments were just downloading this iPhone app and sort of taking random pictures and then seeing hey can we match this person up with this sort of surveillance database with without any oversights or checks. You can check out a lot more about that project and including viewing the actual requests themselves that that link and then the New York Times ended up in a bunch of other places ran dug into that company and the more people found out about it, the more concerned people were because there's just not a lot of transparency about how that company work. And it's this massive facial recognition company that had sketchy backers and being able to kind of dig into that. It all started with filing records request, asking basic questions that, particularly at the local level folks weren't asking about. And then one of the other really exciting things is then being able to take projects like this, and then tie them into larger projects and so we're really excited over last year, the Electronic Frontier Foundation has been working on this really, really wonderful project called Atlas of surveillance, where they've taken a bunch of different data sources including a lot of the records requests filed through various projects for Mark rock and mapping out those, those how surveillance is used all around the country, because I think the future of transparency doesn't have to just be large, federal foil lawsuits, but also finding ways to make transparency matter and show the impact of the local level, right, because sometimes the most meaningful public records requests or requests you're filing with your local police department or your local schools department or your local health department. Because increasingly. If one individual doesn't take the time to kind of say, Oh, I'm going to ask my local government about this, then those questions just don't get asked the this was a really fantastic example of sort of taking some of our data, take another data and then kind of combining that and kind of continuing to build on things and we'd love to see projects like that. You can check out this website at Atlas of surveillance. org.
And then finally, we've been trying to figure out what are new ways that we can sort of go beyond just kind of getting information to kind of finding new ways to kind of engage with this. So if you go to MK rock. COMM slash assignment, um, you'll see crowdsource projects like this, where people you people can be invited to sort of like hey, ask for your police department's policy on use of force, or I want copies of recent police misconduct settlements. And so we've had hundreds of people kind of dig into transparency, not because they care about public records, but because they care about another issue and the way to get answers to those questions is through public records requests. And then we also have a fun tool in assignments that lets us sort of actually go through reams of material and sort of crowdsource reviewing reviewing large documents that's that's a little picture of that at the bottom, where if you have thousands of pages, we have tools that kind of help harness collective energy and kind of going through that. So it's been really exciting kind of watching this all grow from sort of not knowing anything about public records when we started to now having a really wonderful community of thousands of records requesters and 10s of thousands of records requests. I'm just building a larger community of people who care about transparency. And if you're interested in kind of learning more. We actually have two things going on right now, our friends over our friends at government attic, our help, are sponsoring a foil contest. So, if you are a records requester or you're interested in sort of digging into something we are looking for really great for you, ideas, and so you can just go to Bitly bit.li slash voice contest has to be capitalized like that. And we've got some really cool prizes for folks who submit good ideas. And then if you're just looking for a community of folks to talk through public records with, we have a free open Slack, and you can register for an app muckrock comm slash slack. And we'll send you an invite to join the slack and we have a bunch of really cool records requesters there to answer questions and it's a great place to kind of have a community just kind of talk through records request process. So, I see we've got a bunch of questions and I want to get some time for those. So I'm going to kind of switch over to those questions. Um. Audience Question What aspects of these laws govern the reliability and accuracy of the information that is if a government agency makes up data information are there safeguards in place to check that. That's a really great question. So a lot of times the people responding to requests are also the people who essentially have those requests, particularly at the local level. Um, but the thing about bureaucracy is that lots of documents are held in triplicate. A lot of things are sort of duplicated right if you're writing up a memo and you never give it to anybody that's kind of a pointless memo that definitely happens but most documents are designed, built to be shared and and distributed. And so a lot of times people are way more wary about putting inaccurate information in writing. Because bureaucracies are such built on paper trails now people absolutely do falsify some documents I think this comes up a lot of times in terms of understanding how these documents are generated for so for example, after, after a fatal shooting with a police officer. A lot of times their union rep will be there, and kind of coaching them in the responses in terms of that report. And so it's always pay worth paying attention to, sort of, how are these documents generated. Um, so, you know, and sometimes it's not even malicious right a lot of times government data agencies don't want to release databases, not because that this database is full of lies but just because Matt data is messy and they understand that that's messy like, Oh, this person has been having trouble following up in this region and that doesn't mean that regions numbers are better it just means they haven't been able to get data. So, there are laws like if you intentionally destroy government data that is is supposed to be preserved, or if you falsify documents or if you
refuse to kind of respond with with responsive documents. There are penalties for that and over the last few years we've seen both in Florida, and in Georgia, we've seen actual prosecutions with people going to jail for destroying documents or hiding documents or not responding to requests, which we hadn't seen up until the last three or four years. So there are penalties, but there is trust involved and I think usually these documents are distributed with enough people that if somebody goes out there and tries to hide something or destroy it or falsify it. Other people are going to have other copies and so that that often comes light. Somebody asked, Does mock rock provide a means of proxy for me to make a foi request to your organization. In addition, in order to add a level of anonymity, for the sake of protection from retribution. So, we do ask that requesters, we do allow people to use pseudonyms. We do ask people not use our names, without reaching out to us in advance. But I think one of the principles of transparency is that if it's releasable to one person it's releasable to everybody and it shouldn't matter who you are, and so because of that we think anonymous requests are really important, because we've seen a number of cases where local police departments do retaliate against people, or federal agencies you know somebody files a request with their own department, and there can be retaliation so these are these are not purely academic concerns. So be thinking about just like with anything else there is a threat model. If you're filing a request for a copy of somebody emails that person is probably going to see your request and so think through. Do I want to put my real name on this request. Now we always recommend we recommend not lying to the government that is a federal crime. And so, but be thinking through sort of what are ways that you can protect your identity. Protect your protect your rights and protect yourself against retribution. And so there are a lot of cases where we suggest submitting requests anonymously, a number of states allow anonymous requests or, you know, working with an organization or something like that.
A question for the speaker here in New York news reporters trying to foil foil the NYPD just never get a response, how do we force the response and hopefully some sort of useful information. That's a great question. So we actually just launched a couple of new york actually just overhauled, a lot of its policing records requirements. Um, and so there's now a lot of more information from new york police departments that needs to be released. And so, I think one of the things is sort of figuring out sort of how do you make it more painful for an agency not to respond to your request and respond to your request NYPD is particularly challenging agency. We've seen cases where they'll, they'll get sued for not responding to a request, and then they'll the courts will force them to hand over that information and somebody else will request information that same document. The next year, and the agency will just be like fine sue us again, that's what we're going to make you do. And so I think, figuring out how do we kind of again turn in sort of bureaucracy against itself. Um, and so figuring out ways to kind of creatively use agencies that are intransigent to, to build public pressure use litigation and find other ways to creatively push back. I think we are question time for just one or two more questions. Um,
let's take what do you want to question because we are running out of time. Okay, great.
Um. So last question what are repercussions for an agency that refuses to comply with boya. Um, I think one of the biggest repercussions is in many states and at the federal level you have the right to sue that agency. And if you successfully Sue that agency and when a lot of times they have to pay your attorneys fees. And when you're an agency and you have to spend 5000 10,000 $20,000 and records fees. That's something that people typically notice and so I think, just like anything else like hitting them in the pocketbook can sometimes be the best deterrent. And when we found that it's really effective in other states and so if you're lobbying in your state for federal stronger transparency laws, legal fees is the number one thing I'd recommend lobbying to get. So thank you all so much. These are really great questions I hope to see some of you on the slack and I'd love to see your foil suggestions in our foil contest.
Thank you, Mike. This was a such an amazing talk and creating transparency within the community and the government. Stay tuned for our next talk, which is coming up in a couple of minutes. So, thank you so much everybody for joining us for today's talk. Bye, by.