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Today in OpenGov: Supreme Court could loosen bribery rules for politicians

Friday, April 29, 2016 11:10
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(Before It's News)

By The Sunlight Foundation

TOP STORIES: A new study of Wikipedia traffic by Jonathan Penney shed more light on how people used the Internet after the revelations by former intelligence contractor Edward Snowden. When Penny, a Ph.D. candidate at Oxford, analyzed traffic on Wikipedia in 2013, before and after news broke about the National Security Agency’s online surveillance, he observed that page views on Wikipedia articles related to terrorism, like “al-Qaeda,” “car bomb” or “Taliban,” had decreased by 20 percent.

“You want to have informed citizens,” Penney said. “If people are spooked or deterred from learning about important policy matters like terrorism and national security, this is a real threat to proper democratic debate.” [Washington Post]

As Glenn Greenwald noted in his commentary on the research, this research further validates a chilling effect suggested by a 2015 study of Google data found that after the Snowden disclosures, Americans “were less likely to search using search terms that they believed might get them in trouble with the US government.”

DON’T BLIND THE IRS: The New York Times published an editorial today regarding H.R. 5053, which would allow the identities of donors to 501(c) “social welfare” groups to be kept secret. As the Sunlight Foundation and our allies warned in a letter to the House, passing the bill into law would “open the door wide for secret, unaccountable money from foreign governments, foreign corporations and foreign individuals to be illegally laundered into federal elections.”

BRANDEIS WEPT: Nina Totenburg reported that the nation’s highest court may be leaning towards voiding former Virginia Gov. Bob McConnell’s corruption conviction. As the Economist noted, the Supreme Court seems inclined to loosen bribery rules for politicians.

Law professor and congressional candidate Zephyr Teachout — the Sunlight Foundation’s first director of organizing and outreach — wrote about the case in an op-ed in The New York Times.

In its Citizens United ruling, the court gutted campaign finance laws. It acknowledged that American politics faced the threat of gift-givers and donors trying to corrupt the system, but it held that campaign finance laws were the wrong way to deal with that problem; bribery laws were the better path. Now, though, the court seems ready to gut bribery laws, saying that campaign finance laws provide a better approach. But if both campaign finance laws and bribery laws are now regarded as problematic, what’s left?


  • The U.S. Supreme Court approved a change to the rules of criminal procedure that allow judges to issue search warrants for computers in any jurisdiction. Congress has until December to pass legislation to change the rules.[Reuters]
  • According to internal documents released in response to a FOIA lawsuit filed by the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press and The Associated Press, the Federal Bureau of Investigation didn’t follow its own rules when it impersonated an Associated Press reporter when it tried to locate a criminal suspect in 2007. [RCFP] [AP]
  • Illinois Congressman Bobby Rush sent a letter to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) requesting an investigation into Amazon’s delivery practices after a Bloomberg News analysis found the online retailer did not offer same-day delivery to neighborhoods in Chicago, Atlanta, Boston, Dallas, New York, and D.C. that are primarily constituted of African-American residents. The FTC warned of the risks of discriminatory data analysis in a report in January. Amazon has since said it will bring same-day delivery to the Roxbury neighborhood of Boston. [Chicago Inno]
  • In his farewell to the Library of Congress’, Demand Progress policy director Daniel Schuman traces the history of the venerable website and the activism and advocacy that has resulted in the data behind it being released to the public. [Medium]
  • When goes offline in July, however, it’s likely that a lot of hyperlinks are going to break online, as your correspondent told a reporter yesterday. Publishing permalinks to bills was the right thing to do, but link rot is going to be painful if the technical staff at Congress don’t maintain redirect tables properly. [Fedscoop]
  • Jason Shueh wrote about the irony of the Department of Justice opposing the Obama administration’s public position on the Freedom of Information Act reform in private in its communications with Congress. [Memorandum] [Govtech]
  • It’s not just your imagination: The 2016 election has been marked by uncivil discourse. “You don’t have to be an MIT scientist to know that the Presidential campaign has often been lewd, crude, and rude,” wrote Andrew Haywood, a researcher at the MIT Media Lab, in a Medium post about Tonar. “But it helps.” A study of Twitter data at the Lab showed how ugly it’s gotten online, and when. Key caveat: political debates on Twitter focus on different issues than the broader American public. [PRI]
  • If you need dose of something more wondrous, visit NASA’s Tumblr for wonderful animated GIFs and clear writing. This was a treat to rediscover last night — and while other agencies don’t have rockets and space as their subject matter or mission, a good example of plain language and effective communication in government. nasa-nebula

State and Local

  • “In many ways, the ‘open debate’ Monday night in Florida between U.S. Senate hopefuls Rep. Alan Grayson and Rep. David Jolly set a new standard for how to engage candidates in substantive dialogue about issues that matter most to voters,” wrote Christine Cupaiuolo. “For starters, try asking the voters what they want to know.” More of this, please. [Civicist]
  • The Urban Institute published a report on the “political economy framework for the urban data revolution.” []
  • If you’re building civic apps for the public, you need to build them with the public. The Smart Chicago Collaborative’s Civic User Testing Group (CUTGroup) is a model that cities around the world would do well to emulate. [DataSmart Cities]
  • Publishing the salaries of city employees online earlier this month showed that Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney is serious about open data, argues former Philly chief data officer Mark Headd. [Philly Magazine]
  • The city of Las Vegas blogged about its updated open data policy on Tumblr.
  • 53 jurisdictions with more than 41 million people have committed to the White House Police Data Initiative on the use of force, covering more than 41 million people. That leaves about 17,000 other jurisdictions with more than 260 million people yet to join. [Washington Post]
  • The Cal-Access website went offline under demand yesterday. Neither California Secretary of State Alex Padilla or the CA SOS office used their social media accounts to explain the cause of the downtime or any expected fixes. A bill to fix the system is pending in the California legislature. Upgrading legacy systems that go down under online demand makes sense. So does using social media to inform the public. [Common Cause]
  • Whether it’s legal or not to document your vote varies state by state, as you can find in the Digital Media Law Project. The rapid adoption of smartphones and cultural adoption of taking and sharing “selfies” has created a different context. Snapchat, the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press  and the New England First Amendment Coalition have all filed amicus briefs in a case in New Hampshire arguing that bans on documenting the vote violate First Amendment rights. Opponents, including New Hampshire’s secretary of state, argue that removing the prohibition could allow people trying to fix elections to demand evidence of purchased votes. [New York Times]


  • Researcher Emanuel Feld analyzed the government Github ecosystem. (His network diagram is above.) One of his takeaways, shared with Sunlight via email:
    “I had a preconception that most members of/contributors to government GitHub organizations were already on the platform and familiar with public, social coding. I thought that this was knowledge they had acquired elsewhere (another job, personal use) and that they were bringing it to government.

But, in about half of the cases, users were not already on GitHub before they began contributing to a government organization. I didn’t look into it, but I’d venture to say this is even more common outside of the big players (e.g. 18F, GSA, GDS). People might have previously used platforms other than GitHub, though it seems clear that such tools and practices are often new at an individual level—not just at an institutional one.

  • Zara Rahman shared her impressions from the the Impacts of Civic Technology Conference. One takeaway: “Broadly speaking, we seem to have come to an understanding: the problem is rarely the technology, the problem is the people, or the political culture. One of the things I enjoy most about working at the engine room is that despite our tech and data focus, when I start speaking to people about their ‘tech’ problems, I end up talking about culture or organisational strategy. ” [The Engine Room]
  • Google’s DeepMind has signed an agreement with the United Kingdom’s National Health Service to access to a wide range of healthcare data on 1.6 million patients who pass through three London hospitals annually, including patient data going back five years. [New Scientist]
  • The editorial director of Sidewalk Labs took a look at how Estonia became a global leader in e-government. [Medium]
  • Loveland is trying to map out every parcel of land on Planet Earth. [MakeLoveland]
  •   Events  


    • The Do Good Data conference is ongoing today. Tune in to #DoGoodData2016 for the backchannel and keep an eye out for the Sunlighters in attendance.
    • The County of San Mateo is hosting a hackathon on May 21.
    • Here’s an unusual sponsor for a hackathon with a civic angle: AT&T is hosting a hackathon tonight at Launch Fishers in Fishers, Indiana that to participate in an “app challenge that utilizes the Internet of Things and a civic challenge that highlights the benefits of open data.”
      In the IoT challenge, participants will build interconnected devices with hardware provided by AT&T that could be used to manage city assets or address community problems. AT&T says examples could be water main leakage detectors, gunshot sound detectors, or lighting controls for city streets. The civic challenge will see participants using anonymous data on Indiana’s heroin and methamphetamine problems to build creative solutions that could help lawmakers, law enforcement and emergency services better understand and reduce drug-related incidents. The data will come from the State Police Drug Lab and Marion County Emergency Services.

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    We want to find and share the most important stories about open government around the world from the past 24 hours here. To do that, we’ll need YOUR help. Please send your tips and feedback at [email protected]. If you would like suggest an event, email us by 7 am on the Monday prior to the event.

    The Sunlight Foundation is a non-profit, nonpartisan organization that uses the power of the Internet to catalyze greater government openness and transparency, and provides new tools and resources for media and citizens, alike.


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