Concerned Hackers Aren't the Only Ones Wanting to Protect Federal Data

    May 08, 2017

    Since the transition in the White House in January, thousands of concerned Americans have downloaded more than two million government datasets with the goal of preserving information they believe might be suppressed or destroyed, according to a recent article on MSN.com. The datasets concern such topics as climate science research, discriminatory housing reports, gun violence statistics, to name a few.

    Now, Washington is getting in on the action.

    This month, Senators Gary Peters and Cory Gardner introduced a bipartisan bill that would make it tougher for any administration to disappear public data. If passed, the Preserving Government Data Act of 2017 would affect the availability of everything from census numbers to sea level rise.

    The new bill is a clear reaction to the administration’s attitude toward transparency. Earlier this month, the president announced he wouldn’t voluntarily provide White House visitor logs, and recently the Justice Department mounted a legal defense of the U.S. Agriculture Department’s decision to suppress a set of records on animal abuse enforcement.

    These acts help support the belief the executive branch is not interested in continuing lawmakers’ commitment to public data access, which began with the 2010 Public Online Information Act, a law that put all publicly available data on the internet. Last December, the Senate passed a bill to make it easier for a machine to read and extract that data.

    The Preserving Government Data Act would ensure that once a government dataset is published online, it cannot be taken down easily. The bill forces federal agencies to give six months’ notice and provide a good explanation for why they wish to remove publicly available data. Currently, agency heads can pull data for a variety of reasons, including if they think it’s too costly to maintain or not valuable to the public.

    “It imposes a sort of accountability tool,” says Aaron Mackey, a legal fellow at the Electronic Frontier Foundation. “Once something is out there, this makes it really hard to make it secret again.”

    The bill has the backing of the Center for Data Innovation and The Sunlight Foundation, a government data watchdog.

    Sunlight’s deputy director, Alex Howard, who helped craft the proposed law, says it’s a no-brainer. “Keeping public data available and easy for the public to access isn’t a Republican idea or a Democratic idea. It’s an American idea.”

    The Washington Policy Brief is an online advisory that contains brief summaries of recent legislative and regulatory issues that may affect the records and information management profession. Further information about the issue is accessed by clicking on the link provided at the end of each summary.


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