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The Mechanics
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Chicago Thu May 13 2010

Chillin' with the FOIA

Mayor Daley today announced that, henceforth, City Hall would not merely log (as required by law) but post online the names, requesting organizations, and documents requested for each Freedom of Information Act ("FOIA") request. The log is already posted online at the City's Department of Law web page, showing, for instance, that the Sun-Times's Chris Fusco is looking into the mayor's security detail, and that the Chicago Justice Project is investigating verdicts and settlements paid by the City in civil rights lawsuits.

Posting such a log is not required by state FOIA law and was done, the City said, in interests of transparency. But who is being made more transparent by this? Someone at the City doesn't seem to get that transparency is about making what government does more visible to citizens. Here, it's citizens who are being made more visible.

Maybe such a log will help avoid a few duplicative requests. But, overall, the immediate obvious effects suggest a curtailment, rather than implementation, of the purposes behind FOI law. NBC Chicago termed the measure "turnabout" and suggested that the mayor seemed "gleeful" in announcing it.

A couple of negatives jump out. For the average citizen, this provides just one more way in which your name can get spread around the Internet. Who might make commercial or even malicious use of a list of FOIA-requestors, one can only speculate, but there's little limit to the imagination of identity thieves, privacy invaders, data-miners and worse. The only possible impact on the average citizen is a chilling effect.

For the media, this amounts to compelled disclosure, to the competition, of City stories a reporter is working on. Whether that creates a disincentive to work on such stories, or fuels greater interest among all media in certain stories, will remain to be seen, but given the declining revenues of traditional news organizations and especially print outlets, it's hard to see a plus at first glance.

Finally, this amounts to casting a spotlight -- not on government, but on the activities of attorneys protecting people's legal rights, do-gooder organizations, advocacy groups, and just plain concerned citizens. Which in turn allows their often-better-financed opponents to get a jump on them, whether in litigation or simply the ongoing spin battle for the hearts and mind of the public.

At the same time that government is taking FOIA steps to better protect itself against those pesky citizens, we see an ever-expanding monitoring and broadcast of what citizens are up to, one more instance of freedom turned on its head.

"Transparency" wasn't supposed to mean "through the looking glass."

 
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Orion / May 14, 2010 8:56 AM

Tough sh*t.

Turnabout is fair play.

Media likes to post workers salaries and contracts but can't stand the heat when it is on them.

Way to go Richie !

Here is the site by the way:
http://www.cityofchicago.org/city/en/progs/foia.html

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