Tag: transparency

HouseLive.gov Video: Wait and See

The potential of streaming video from the House of Representatives is so great that my first impression of the House’s new video offering, HouseLive.gov, has been disappointment. There is much room to improve HouseLive.gov, and I hope it will improve.

At first, I couldn’t find any video that was actually live. (That would inject a bit of irony into the name, eh?) But there is live video: On the homepage, scroll down to the top of the “Most Recent Sessions” chart. If the top of the list has an item called “In Progress,” the House is in session. Clicking the video link will get you live video from the House floor.

(Don’t be fooled by the “Subscribe to Live Feeds” box. Those are RSS feeds, which are “live”—as in regularly updated. They’re not live video or audio.)

Most people will probably access this from the House clerk’s familiar “Floor Summary” page, which has near-real-time updates about House activity. But that page says “Streaming video is not available for this session.” That’s a hiccup that should be easy to fix.

Selecting a past day, one can watch the video of that day, but in my early tests, you had to watch the video from the beginning. I don’t think many people are going to watch 10 hours of video to pick up their representative’s remarks on the bill to congratulate Camp Dudley of Westport, New York, on its 125th anniversary.

I’ve been testing in Firefox. In Internet Explorer, I got some links that do things. It appears you will be able to navigate around a day’s video based on the activity of the House. That is, you can jump to where the House began debate on the Camp Dudley bill.

Hopefully, the system will work in standards-compliant browsers, not only Microsoft’s. I note that the video currently plays only in Windows Media Player or Microsoft’s Silverlight. I’ll leave it to friends better versed in video to critique the selection of formats, but I have doubts about these two as being the best, and most open, available.

Beyond junctures in House debate, there should be more tagging to make the video useful. Not only should you be able to navigate via House activity, you should be able to navigate by bill number, and by member of Congress.

When you do navigate around, I don’t see that the “share” link changes. This needs fixing so that people can direct friends and colleagues to key portions of debates. In fact, you should be able to link to any point in the video. Ideally, there should be an embed function that allows defined segments of video to go into blog posts and such. That latter one is a big ask, but Congress is a big, important institution.

It’s early yet. Maybe these things are in the works or on the drawing board. Rolling HouseLive.go out in “beta,” getting feedback, and fixing it is A-OK. But sometimes government agencies set a course and have a hard time changing after that. The Thomas legislative system, brilliant as it was for 1995, still isn’t publishing bill data in good formats, and a private provider has had to take up the slack.

HouseLive.gov is better than nothing. It can be much, much better than it is.

It’s Not the Crime, It’s the Cover-Up

Secrecy breeds suspicion, and little in the intellectual property area has garnered more suspicion than ACTA, the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement.

ACTA is a multilateral trade agreement that has been under negotiation since 2007. But the negotiations haven’t been public, and access to key documents has only been provided to people willing to sign a non-disclosure agreement.

It is inconsistent with the U.S. public’s expectations to have government officials negotiate public policies without providing public access to the deliberations and the documents. There are some limitations and exceptions to this principle. Generic diplomatic relations probably develop best in an environment where candor can prevail. Issues related to national security may require secret negotiations. But intellectual property issues affect all Americans’ communications, commerce, entertainment, expression, access to knowledge, medical care, privacy, and more.

The good news is that a text of the current draft agreement has now been released. According to James Love of Knowledge Ecology International, ACTA “goes way beyond counterfeiting and copyright piracy, into several categories of intellectual property rights, including patents, semi conductor chip designs, pharmaceutical test data and other topics.”

Public debate on ACTA can now begin, but it begins with doubts surrounding it, doubts that were sown by the non-public process in which ACTA has developed so far.

How Much Government Snooping? Google It Up!

The secrecy surrounding government surveillance is a constant source of frustration to privacy activists and scholars: It’s hard to have a serious discussion about policy when it’s like pulling teeth to get the most elementary statistics about the scope of state information gathering, let alone any more detailed information. Even when reporting is statutorily required, government agencies tend to drag their heels making statistics available to Congress – and it can take even longer to make the information more widely accessible. Phone and Internet companies, even when they join the fight against excessive demands for information, are typically just as reluctant to talk publicly about just how much of their customers’ information they’re required to disclose. That’s why I’m so pleased at the news that Google has launched their Government Requests transparency tool.  It shows a global map on which users can see how many governmental demands for user information or content removal have been made to Google’s ever-growing empire of sites – now including Blogger, YouTube, and Gmail – starting with the last six months.

So far, the information up there is both somewhat limited and lacking context.  For instance, it might seem odd that Brazil tops the list of governmental information hounds until you bear in mind that Google’s Orkut social network, while little-used by Americans, is the Brazilian equivalent of Facebook.

There are also huge gaps in the data: The United States comes in second with 3,580 requests from law enforcement at all levels, but that doesn’t include intelligence requests, so National Security Letters (tens of thousands of which are issued every year) and FISA warrants or “metadata” orders (which dwarf ordinary federal wiretaps in number) aren’t part of the tally. And since China considers all such government information requests to be state secrets – whether for criminal or intelligence investigations – no data from the People’s Republic is included.

Neither is there any detail about the requests they have counted – how many are demands for basic subscriber information, how many for communications metadata, and how many for actual e-mail or chat contents. The data on censorship is similarly limited: They’re counting governmental but not civil requests, such as takedown notices under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act.

For all those limits – and the company will be striving to provide some more detail, within the limits of the law – this is a great step toward bringing vital transparency to the shadowy world of government surveillance, and some nourishment to the data-starved wretches who seek to study it. We cannot have a meaningful conversation about whether censorship or invasion of privacy in the name of security have gone too far if we do not know, at a minimum, what the government is doing. So, for a bit of perspective, we know that U.S. courts reported a combined total of 1,793 (criminal, not intel) wiretaps sought by both federal and state authorities. Almost none of these (less than 1 percent) were for electronic interception.

This may sound surprising, unless you keep in mind that federal law establishes a very high standard for the “live” interception of communications over a wire, but makes it substantially easier – under some circumstances rather terrifyingly easy – to get stored communications records. So there’s very little reason for police to jump through all the hoops imposed on wiretap orders when they want to read a target’s e-mails.

If and when Google were to break down that information about requests – to show how many were “full content” as opposed to metadata requests – we would begin to have a far more accurate picture of the true scope of governmental spying. Should other major players like Yahoo and Facebook be inspired to follow Google’s admirable lead here, it would be better still.  Already, though, that one data point from a single company – showing more than twice as many data requests as the total number of phone wiretaps reported for the entire country – suggests that there is vastly more actual surveillance going on than one might infer from official wiretap numbers.

University of Maryland Beating Editorial

The Washington Post has an excellent editorial on the beating that Prince George’s County officers gave University of Maryland student John J. McKenna. As I said in this post, the beating, and the false charges filed against McKenna, would never have resulted in the suspension of (and possible charges against) the officers involved without video that showed the officers’ unwarranted aggression. As the Post puts it:

Instead, it was not until the video surfaced this week that Prince George’s Police Chief Roberto L. Hylton learned of it, he said, adding that he was “outraged and disappointed.” Why wasn’t he “outraged and disappointed” that his own police had not come forward earlier to report the incident? After all, media reports at the time included eyewitness accounts of excessive police violence. Wasn’t it Chief Hylton’s responsibility to investigate those allegations? The unavoidable conclusion is that had there been no video, the conspiracy of police silence and coverup would have succeeded.

McKenna was fortunate that his family had the resources to hire a private investigator to find the video. Not everyone is so lucky, and it makes the case for changing Maryland’s unanimous consent law for recording conversations, as this case highlights. Laws that prevent the recording of interactions with police prevent transparency in what is supposed to be an open and free society.

House Procedure—and Transparency in Collapse

Over on the WashingtonWatch.com blog, I’ve laid out in the simplest terms I could what’s going on in terms of procedure with health care overhaul legislation. The post, called “What is Deeming, Anyway?”, comes in at a mere 900 words… If you’re a real public policy junkie, you might like it.

But what about the transparency oriented processes that President Obama and leaders like Speaker Pelosi promised the public? Recall that the Speaker promised to post the health care bill online for 72 hours before a vote back in September.

There was debate about whether she stuck to her promise then. And it was probably a one-time promise. It’s almost certain that she will not do so now. If she lines up the votes to pass the bill, the vote will happen. Right. Then.

What about President Obama’s promise to put health care negotiations on C-SPAN? The daylong roundtable debate on health care was an engaging illustration of what happens when you do transparent legislating. Voters got a clearer picture of where each side stands—and perhaps saw that there actually is some competence on both sides of the aisle. Some competence.

The health care negotiations going on right now are the ones that matter. This is when the most important details are being hammered out. This is when the bargaining that draws the public’s ire is happening. But I’m not seeing it on C-SPAN.

President Obama’s promise may have been naive, but that doesn’t excuse breaking it. The inside negotiations going on this week represent an ongoing violation of the president’s C-SPAN promise.

And there’s good reason to anticipate that the president will violate his Sunlight Before Signing promise as well. This was his promise to post bills online for five days after he receives them from Congress before signing them into law.

The reason why I’m so confident of a prospective violation—aside from the promise being flouted more often than not—is that the White House has posted the Senate-passed health care overhaul bill on the “Pending Legislation” page of Whitehouse.gov. H.R. 3590 as passed by the Senate is right there in among the bills Congress has passed, which are getting their five-day public review.

If the White House plans to argue that the health care overhaul legislation got the five-day public review President Obama promised, that will not fly at all.

The substance of the Sunlight Before Signing promise is to post bills for five days after Congress’ final vote. (I’ve recommended starting the clock at “presentment,” the formal constitutional step when the president receives a bill from Congress.)

Something other than that, such as posting the Senate bill before it passes the House—while failing to post the “fixer” bill for five days—would fundamentally violate the president’s transparency promise.

What an irony if all this were to happen this week, which, after all, is Sunshine Week!

The President Comments on Sunshine Week

It is “Sunshine Week,” a time for attending to government transparency issues. And the president issued a statement today commemorating the occassion. Norm Eisen, the president’s special counsel for ethics and government reform, put a more detailed “Happy Sunshine Week” post on the Whitehouse.gov blog today as well.

The administration has done some good things, and there is no doubt that it means to do well. My pet transparency issue is one on which the news is not so good, however: the “Sunlight Before Signing” promise to post bills received from Congress for five days before they are made law.

When I last reported, the president was seven for 142 on fulfilling this promise. Of 142 bills subject to Sunlight Before Signing, only seven have been posted for five days. Since then another law has passed—H.R. 1299/P.L. 111-145, which was presented to the president on March 2nd, posted on Whitehouse.gov on March 4th, and signed into law the same day.

No emergency excuses the “United States Capitol Police Administrative Technical Corrections Act of 2009” from the sunlight treatment. Had it been posted, Americans may have had the opportunity to ask why a bill of that name establishes a “Corporation for Travel Promotion” to encourage international travel to the United States.

(Answer: S. 1023 was rolled into it, obscuring what Congress was doing in a common but insidious way. Cost of S. 1023 per U.S. family: about $24.)

The White House’s fulfillment of the Sunlight Before Signing promise now stands at seven for 143, or .049.

In his post, Norm Eisen said, “We are proud of our successes, but we of course recognize that much remains to be done, and we intend to redouble our efforts to make government as transparent, collaborative and participatory as possible.” And in his statement, the president said, “We are proud of these accomplishments, but our work is not done. We will continue to work toward an unmatched level of transparency, participation  and accountability across the entire Administration.”

The successes touted by Eisen and the president are real. We’re looking forward to more!

Just Give Us the Data! Transparency and Change

Yesterday my government transparency site WashingtonWatch.com rolled out a transparency campaign (along with many collaborators) called “Just Give Us the Earmark Data!”

Visitors to Earmarkdata.org are encouraged there to sign a petition asking Congress to publish data about earmarks in formats that are useful for public oversight. Developers can also participate in perfecting the data schema that will capture the “earmarks ecosystem” in the best possible way.

After a surprisingly successful effort at “crowdsourcing” earmark data last summer, the push for earmark transparency gained steam in January, when President Obama spoke about it in his State of the Union speech. A White House “fact sheet” issued the same day called for a “bipartisan, state-of-the-art disclosure database that allows Americans to examine the details of every proposed earmark.”

(We were going to ask for good earmark data anyway, but this gave the idea currency in a lot of quarters.)

The focus on earmarks and transparency got the political calculators whirring on Capitol Hill. “Is earmarking worth doing considering the political heat it is going to draw?”

One set of actors came up with their answer last week. House Democrats announced that they would restrict their earmarking only to non-profits. They want for-profit businesses seeking taxpayer money to go through conventional channels like competitive bidding.

The next day, House Republicans came back over the top of Democrats’ political bet. They announced that they would forgo earmarking entirely.

That’s House Democrats and House Republicans. Don’t assume that earmarking is going to go away. A good-government bidding war is on, though—spurred by the political challenge of transparency.

A couple of observations, least important first:

  • If it wasn’t obvious before, this illustrates that politicians are very capable political risk balancers. Indeed, surfing political waves is arguably the primary task of elected officials, most especially at the national level, and without this skill, they are goners. (That’s why looking for a wellspring of principle in an elected official usually gets you swamped in disappointment.)

    I’ve had a number of friendly cynics suggest that politicians wouldn’t mind earmark transparency—bringing home the bacon brings in the votes! This appears in general not to be true. There may still be earmarking from a hard core group who do perceive overall political benefits from it, but they’ll have to buck their parties, who do not.

    (Alas, I can’t say “I told you so!” because I tended to just grin and say “Maybe you’re right!” For future reference, I agree with the tendency, but doubt the direct outcome described in the adage attributed to Benjamin Franklin, “When the people find that they can vote themselves money, that will herald the end of the republic.” Thankfully, it’s more complicated than that.)

  • Notable: Elected officials’ political tuning is not just reactive. The anticipation of earmark transparency is what started this bidding war.This is especially worth noting with respect to President Obama’s “Sunlight Before Signing” promise, which I most recently reported on here. Skeptics have said that President Obama’s promise to post bills he receives from Congress online for five days before making them law wouldn’t make any difference because a bill that Congress has sent down Pennsylvania Avenue is already final. But a parochial amendment hanging out there for five days threatens to draw political discredit on its author and supporters—and their party. Sunlight Before Signing was a meaningful promise.

    (SBS has two advantages over the creditable “Read the Bill” proposal to hold bills 72 hours before a vote in Congress: 1) SBS takes advantage of interbranch rivalry, and 2) it was a campaign promise of the president!)

  • Broadly, this episode illustrates how transparency can bring welcome change. It’s correct to observe that earmarks represent only a tiny part of overall spending. But applying parallel transparency efforts to other parts of the legislative and regulatory processes are likely to elicit similar good behavior from government officials. There are manifold directions to go with government transparency. Each in its way stands to create political dynamics more congenial to good government and—more importantly—to liberty.