FIRST Act is Setback for Public Access

March 13, 2014

By Elizabeth Holland

Today, the Subcommittee on Research and Technology of the Committee on Science, Space, and Technology reported H.R.4186, the Frontiers in Innovation, Research, Science and Technology (FIRST) Act. AALL strongly opposes the bill as written. Introduced this week by Lamar Smith (R-Texas) and Rep. Larry Bucshon (R-Ind.) (the chairmen of the full committee and subcommittee, respectively), the FIRST Act would impose significant barriers to the public’s ability to access the results of taxpayer-funded research.

The FIRST Act flies in the face of the White House Directive on Public Access to the Results of Federally Funded Research and seeks instead to significantly limit public access to government-sponsored scientific research in several ways: Section 303 of the bill would restrict public access to articles reporting on federally funded research for up to three years after initial publication, a length of the time that would surely slow the pace of scientific discovery.  The bill would also allow federal agencies to link to final copies of articles, rather than archive full text copies for public use and long-term accessibility. The bill further fails to support provisions that allow for shorter embargo periods to publicly funded research results.

The FIRST Act clearly aims to reverse the President’s strong mandate for expanded public access, which was recently affirmed in the FY 2014 omnibus. It is not the open access reform we need.

Tell your lawmakers you oppose the FIRST Act and urge them to instead co-sponsor FASTR, the Fair Access to Science and Technology Research Act (S. 350H.R. 708), which would strengthen the language in the omnibus bill by requiring that taxpayer funded articles be made available through a central database no later than six months after publication.


DOJ Seeks Input for Third Open Government Plan

February 18, 2014

By Elizabeth Holland

Federal agencies are currently developing their third open government plans per President Obama’s Memorandum on Transparency and Open Government and the Open Government Directive. As part of the process, the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) is seeking input and new ideas from the public for its plan. AALL’s Government Relations Office (GRO) and Government Relations Committee (GRC) are working together to submit recommendations to DOJ.

Previous DOJ open government plans included initiatives like creating of FOIA.gov and FARA.gov, posting its digitized legislative histories for public use, and establishing a quarterly Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) reporting requirement.  The GRO and GRC participated in past audits of the plans, organized by OpenTheGovernment.org, and have worked closely with DOJ to ensure the plans were effectively implemented.

To submit input for DOJ’s next open government plan, send your ideas to AALL Director of Government Relations Emily Feltren at efeltren@aall.org by February 24, 2014.


AALL Again Urges Reform to Incorporation by Reference System

February 6, 2014

By Elizabeth Holland

As detailed in Emily’s recent post, “Congress Considers the Scope of Copyright,” AALL has consistently urged for reform of the incorporation by reference system to allow for greater openness and transparency. Following up on our June 2012 request to the Office of Management and Budget, AALL signed on to a January 31 coalition letter to request the Office of the Federal Register (OFR) issue a final rule that goes beyond the meager changes in the Notice Of Proposed Rulemaking and requires that standards incorporated by reference in proposed rules and in final rules be available for free on the Internet.

As the letter states, AALL “strongly believes that standards incorporated by reference into federal regulations should be widely available to the public, without charge, and that such standards should be deemed in the public domain rather than subject to copyright restrictions.” Twenty groups signed on to the letter, which was sent in response to the OFR’s proposed rule  to amend regulations governing the approval of agency requests to incorporate material by reference into the Code of Federal Regulations.


Farm Bill Moves Forward Without Anti-Transparency Language

February 3, 2014

By Elizabeth Holland

We’re pleased to the report that, after pressure from powerful members of Congress and the open government community, the farm bill moved forward last week without the proposed provisions to cut off public access to information about agricultural and livestock information.  On January 29, the House approved by a vote of 251 to 166 the Agricultural Act of 2014 (H. Rept. 113-333), the Senate-House conference report to replace the Food, Conservation and Energy Act of 2008, which expired on October 1, 2013.

Language originally included in the House-passed bill would have prohibited disclosure of information about any owner, operator, or employee of an agricultural or livestock operation. The public— particularly neighbors of such operations— requires access to information about the operations to ensure their health and safety. This language would have undermined the Freedom of Information Act’s (FOIA) goal of transparency and extended personal privacy protections to corporate farms. On November 6, 2013, AALL joined more than 40 organizations in urging members of the conference committee on the Farm Bill not to include the harmful language.

AALL has joined several organizations on letters of thanks to Senator Patrick Leahy and Congressmen Elijah Cummings and Henry Waxman for their support and leadership in removing the provisions in the final version. We expect the conference report will be debated and voted upon in the Senate shortly.


White House Releases Ambitious Second National Action Plan on Open Government

December 13, 2013

By Elizabeth

Late last week, the White House released its second Open Government Partnership National Action Plan (NAP), setting forth 23 new or expanded commitments in open government for Administration to undertake in the remainder of President Obama’s term. The Open Government Partnership was established in July 2011 as a global effort to encourage transparent, effective, and accountable governance, with more than 60 member-nations today. The United States released its first Open Government National Action Plan in September 2011 and since that time, AALL has worked closely with a number of open government groups to evaluate its contents and implementation and to make recommendations for the second plan.

As we previously reported, the second NAP includes commitments to open data, increasing fiscal and corporate transparency, advancing citizen engagement, more effectively managing public resources, and modernizing the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). Other new and notable commitments include to “transform the security classification system” based on the principle that “classification must… be kept to the minimum required to meet national security needs….” To that end, the Administration will establish a new interagency Classification Review Committee as recommended by the Public Interest Declassification Board last year. On his Secrecy News blog, Steven Aftergood offers an analysis. New declassification tools, including new document analysis and monitoring systems, could help work through a massive backlog of requests. The inclusion of surveillance issues in the second NAP is also noteworthy in light of the Administration’s position on the Snowden leaks and NSA disclosure. In the plan, the White House pledges to “increase Transparency of Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Activities” by releasing annual public reports on the government’s use of “certain national security authorities.” These reports will include the total number of orders issued during the prior twelve-month period and the number of targets affected by them. The Director of National Intelligence will also continue to review and, where appropriate, declassify information related to foreign intelligence surveillance programs, per the second NAP. Finally, the White House also pledges to consult with stakeholders and seek input from the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board to ensure an appropriate balance between the protection of privacy and national security interests.

While not revolutionary, the second National Action Plan is an important and ambitious commitment to transparent and accountable government. AALL applauds this next step and looks forward to working with the Administration and other open government advocates on the implementation of these ideals.


White House Commitments Would Expand Access to Information

November 5, 2013

By Elizabeth

During last week’s Open Government Partnership (OGP) meeting in London, the Obama administration released a preview of its U.S. Open Government National Action Plan 2.0 (NAP). While the second NAP will not be finalized until December 2013, six new commitments to further advance the goals of transparency and accountability in the federal government were announced. They include expanding open data, increasing fiscal and corporate transparency, advancing citizen engagement, more effectively managing public resources, and most significantly, modernizing the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).

In the White House’s own words, “the FOIA encourages accountability through transparency and represents a profound national commitment to open government principles. Improving FOIA administration is one of the most effective ways to make the U.S. Government more open and accountable.”  In its new commitment, the administration pledges to implement a consolidated online FOIA portal that allows the public to submit a request to any Federal agency from a single site, develop common FOIA regulations and practices across agencies, and create an interagency working group and advisory committee to improve FOIA processing. FOIA professionals and agency staff will also receive improved FOIA trainings.

The draft OGP plan also includes a commitment to re-launch Data.gov with an expanded index of all agency data sets and special campaigns to unlock agricultural, nutrition and disaster-related data. In an effort to make government data more accessible and useful, federal agencies will also be required to develop an inventory of their data and publish a list of datasets that are public or can be made public. Under the title “Managing Government Data as a Strategic Asset”, the plan pledges that agencies will also develop new mechanisms to solicit public feedback regarding open government data.

AALL applauds the administration for their continued commitment to transparency reforms and we look forward to the release of the second National Action Plan. Access to government information is crucial to a just, democratic society and informed citizenry. AALL will continue to work with the administration and other organizations to promote policies, regulations, and guidance which encourage openness, transparency, and public participation.


Amid NSA Revelations, 2013 Secrecy Report Casts New Doubts

October 15, 2013

By Elizabeth

OpenTheGovernment.org (OTG) has released the 2013 Secrecy Report, its 9th annual review and analysis of indicators of secrecy in the federal government. With the public and lawmakers alike still reeling from the revelations about the scope of National Security Agency’s (NSA) data collection programs, this year’s report casts new doubt on the accuracy and the meaningfulness of the government’s statistics about surveillance.

In a note prefacing the report, OTG’s Executive Director Patrice McDermott writes: “Our distrust of the government’s reported numbers is focused in four areas: demands for records under Section 215 of the USA PATRIOT Act; the applications made to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC) under Section 702 of the FISA Amendments Act of 2012; the failure of congressional oversight; and our new understandings of the interactions between the FISC and the intelligence community, and the expanded role of the Court.” As a result, previously included numbers on the use of National Security Letters (NSLs) and the government’s applications to the FISC are not included in this year’s report. Instead, the discussion focuses on the “misdirection in which our government has engaged” and “secret interpretations of law,” which are “as disturbing as the activities they have hidden.”

In response to the misrepresentation and obfuscation of the government intelligence collection programs, OTG outlines several recommendations for administrative action to curb secret law and restore accountability, including the release of authoritative legal interpretations of the Executive Branch, existing FISC decisions and opinions, and declassified Presidential Policy Directives – all of which AALL strongly supports.

Beyond the aforementioned surveillance programs, the 2013 Secrecy Report also considers the status of open and accountable government in other areas. With regards to the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), this year’s assessment shows that while agencies continue to make progress in reducing their FOIA request backlog, requesters must still wait far too long to get a response. There has also been been a dramatic increase in decisions to withhold information about government deliberations. While the number of people with the authority to create new secrets continues to drop, the volume of classified material continues to grow and overwhelms the government’s declassification efforts. With the National Declassification Center poised to fail to meet its December 31 deadline, the center “has released 57 million pages to the public, a 61 percent release rate.”  Further, OTG found far too much material is marked at a classification level beyond its risk to national security.  While there have been some reductions in secrecy during the Obama administration’s tenure, the rate of change is “well below what it would take to make the government open and accountable.”

AALL is a founding member of OpenTheGovernment.org, a coalition of 80+ groups advocating for open and accountable government. We commend OTG for this year’s impressive report and we will continue to work with the coalition to promote greater transparency at the federal level.


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