Thursday, October 9, 2014

When is a freedom of information act not free?

Journalism can be expensive.

There are a variety of laws that allow the public to request information from various governments. For the United States government, the relevant law is called the Freedom of Information Act. Various states and localities, as well as other countries, have their own laws. In principle, this allows the press to research particular government actions, and to report wrongdoing if found. Of course, this can be used in other ways - for example, whenever a contract is awarded in my industry after a Request for Proposal (RFP) has been issued, there's a mad rush by all of the competing vendors to get copies of the proposals of all of the other vendors.

There's a small town in Missouri - Ferguson - that's getting a lot of these records requests lately. And according to the Associated Press (one of the organizations requesting the information), there are issues with those requests.

I'd tell you what the Associated Press is saying about this, but as you may recall, the AP has its own rules about appropriating content from its articles. So, in order to keep from running afoul of the AP, I am only going to quote one word from the AP article - the first word.


Hint: when your article about a government agency begins with the word "bureaucrats," the results aren't going to be flattering to your agency.

Courthouse News Service, which isn't quite as heavy handed as the AP, has published its own article about the whole brouhaha. Here's more than one word from that article:

A growing number of media outlets claim that Ferguson, Mo. is charging way too much money - $2,000 or more - to respond to Freedom of Information Acts requests about the [Michael] Brown shooting.

If you read the rest of the Courthouse News article, you'll find that the AP isn't the only organization getting hit with high prices from Ferguson. St. Louis Public Radio and the Washington Post have also been quoted hundreds or thousands of dollars in fees. The Courthouse News article goes on to say:

The high fees seem to fly in the face of Missouri's Sunshine Law, which states that copying fees for public records shall not exceed 10 cents a page, with the hourly fee for duplicating time not to exceed the average hourly rate of pay for government clerical staff.

Ferguson and its consultant, Acumen Consulting, seem to be getting around this by charging research fees - fees to find the information in question, fees to review the information to find out what should be redacted, and the like.

According to this article, Acumen is not a current service provider to Ferguson, but was brought in to help with the deluge of records requests. At least one VAR is saying that Ferguson is to blame for the sorry state of its records retrieval:

Jim Gaffney, vice president of RJ2 Technologies in Schaumburg, Ill., said a basic keyword search can easily turn up words, strings of word, or statements that appear anywhere in an internal or external email account.

The key, though, is having an active archiving service, Gaffney said. Popular office email systems such as Microsoft Outlook have a feature that can be turned on or off, which automatically archives emails either 90 days or six months after they were received, he said.

And if those features aren't turned on, there are other ways of getting the information.

A forensic identification process involving the installation of software can usually track down lost documents within a few days, Gaffney said, by searching for the whole laptop or desktop for key phrases, or people and places named in the document.

So all that we have to do is to get the Ferguson Police Department to install some forensic...well, when the investigating agency is a party to the case in question, that gets a little more difficult.
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