BY CORY DOCTOROW
If You Can’t Open Government,
You Don’t Own It
On his first day in office, President Obama for the government to keep its everyday workings
embraced the MAKE ethic in the most a secret from the people who own it: the citizenry.
meaningful way: by opening the government. Secrecy breeds waste, corruption, and insecurity.
Since the infamous Ashcroft memo, issued President Obama went even further: the Jan. 21
after September 11, 2001, the U.S. government memo tells agencies that: “They should not wait
had treated the Freedom of Information Act as a for specific requests from the public. All agencies
bug, not a feature. FOIA is the legislation that lets should use modern technology to inform citizens
ordinary citizens and corporations ask government about what is known and done by their Government.
agencies to disclose the contents of their files. Disclosure should be timely.”
You might want to know how the EPA decided that What’s this mean for you? Well, it means that
the old Superfund site your kid now plays on was government is in the open data business. From now
safe for human habitation. You might want to know on, the daily workings are supposed to be an open
whether the contractor who supplied your body armor book. That’s fine news indeed for makers: time to
had taken out any big-shot generals for a steak dinner get cracking on the services and systems that make
... on a private jet, en route to a Caribbean island. that mountain of data into something meaningful.
This is what the FOIA is for, and when it works, it Americans could do worse than to look at their
makes government accountable and more secure, British cousins, who, through online services like
rooting out corruption and inefficiency through the They WorkFor You ( theyworkforyou.com), have made
time-honored method of sunshine and lots of it. a delightful nuisance of themselves by slicing and
John Ashcroft, then U.S. attorney general, issued dicing their government’s records. Just feed in your
a directive to government agencies on Oct. 12, 2001, postal code and out pops your rep’s name, every
that gutted FOIA. Under the new directive, agencies word she’s uttered, contact details for neighbors
were advised to deny FOIA requests, unless there of yours looking for support on lobbying her, a one-was a “sound legal basis” for complying with them. click way to send her an email, tallies of how often
Prior to this, agencies had defaulted to honoring she votes against the party line, and an RSS feed for
all FOIA requests, unless there was some “foresee- every word she speaks from here on in.
able harm” that could come from them. Effectively, It’s a measure of just how scared governments get
Ashcroft changed FOIA policy to: “We’ll honor your of this kind of thing that the British Parliament tried
FOIA request — after you win a lawsuit against us.” to pass a law saying that its members didn’t have to
So it was a grand and exciting day for activists of publicly disclose the details of their expense reports
all descriptions when, on Jan. 21, 2009, President — that they could keep their spending of public
Barack Obama issued a memo reversing this policy, money on personal expenses a secret. Of course,
directing government agencies to “adopt a pre- services like They WorkFor You helped clobber this
sumption in favor of disclosure” — that is, to change initiative by making it trivial for Britons from across
the government’s default position on revealing what the country to send “Are you kidding me?” emails
it’s doing from “None of your business” to “Pull up a to their Members of Parliament, shocking them into
seat and let me tell you all about it.” action. Needless to say, the bill failed.
MAKE was founded on the principle that “If you President Obama’s inaugural address lionized
can’t open it, you don’t own it,” the stirring preamble “the risk-takers, the doers, the makers of things.”
to Mr. Jalopy’s infamous Maker’s Bill of Rights. This is Last time I checked, that was us.
even more true of governments than it is of gadgets.
Governments do business on our behalf, with our
money, in our country. There’s never a good reason
Cory Doctorow lives in London, writes science fiction novels,
co-edits Boing Boing, and fights for digital freedom.