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'Freedom of Information, Finally Made Easy' by MuckRock (Video)

Roblimo posted about a year ago | from the not-all-data-wants-to-be-free dept.

Government 43

The quote in the title is from www.muckrock.com/about/. And that is exactly what MuckRock is all about: Making FOIA (Freedom of Information Act) requests for you (and investigative reporters) so you don't have to deal with the often-daunting paperwork and runarounds you may run into when you try to pry information out of a recalcitrant government agency. In theory, most government information is public. In practice, many local, state and federal government bodies would just as soon never tell you anything. This is why Tim Lord talked with MuckRock co-founder Michael Morisy, and why we're running this interview in the middle of Sunshine Week, which exists "...to educate the public about the importance of open government and the dangers of excessive and unnecessary secrecy."

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43 comments

LOL (-1)

Anonymous Coward | about a year ago | (#43151429)

I fucked Timothy's asshole while jacking off his teenie weenie.

Appears to be a for-fee service (1)

93 Escort Wagon (326346) | about a year ago | (#43151465)

There's nothing wrong with that in and of itself, but it does kind of turn this submission into a Slashvertisement.

Re:Appears to be a for-fee service (1)

Anonymous Coward | about a year ago | (#43151509)

Roblimo = Slashvertisement

Re:Appears to be a for-fee service (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year ago | (#43151531)

Also they may be borderline acting as a private investigator. Which has a whole set of rules in itself.

Re:Appears to be a for-fee service (1)

Anonymous Coward | about a year ago | (#43151653)

The problem I have with this is that there are services that do this sort of thing for free. Now sure, they don't have an advertizing budget, but again they do it for free. Furthermore, as an attorney who practices in this area, I can say they are quite well known (at least to semi-frequent filers or those with Google); which bothers me even more, because sunshine group makes misleading statements about the alternatives. Then all the talk about the benefits to journalists is all wrong too because they already have a system to do this and they like to keep things close to the chest until they publish. So, terrible terrible job Slashdot!

From the founder (4, Insightful)

v3rgEz (125380) | about a year ago | (#43151711)

Michael here from MuckRock. Nobody else does what we do in the US for free. We lick the stamps, send the envelopes, scan the documents when they come back, and help post them. Hundreds of our users and thousands of our visitors find this to be a valuable service, but if you don't want to use us,we make that easy to: We've got thousands of request templates you can copy and paste for your own use, and a public database of agency contacts that's much more comprehensive than anything else we've seen. Any particular concerns we can address, please let me know. But for the record, over the past 3 years, we've spent about $30 on advertising, all on Google AdWords. Wasn't worth it.

Re:From the founder (1)

Anonymous Coward | about a year ago | (#43152513)

Question: On average, about how much does it cost the government (aka taxpayer) to comply with a FOIA request?

Re:From the founder (1)

Anonymous Coward | about a year ago | (#43152555)

Ok, I'm man enough to admit when I've made a mistake. I dug through your website some more and you are right in two respects: The other guys out there aren't "full service" in that the lick the stamps and the rest and I didn't know the extent of your paid advertizing. While your "full service" may be helpful for people who get a volume of a response (and the next time I'm expecting a multi-thousand page paper response back, I'll be sure to send it your way), I don't see how that is anywhere near the $4 for a request given that most responses I deal with now are done electronically but that may just be due to the agencies I deal with. Maybe it just comes down to not seeing the value of your service for what I consider to be a somewhat exorbitant price given the day-to-day work I do; but then again for a huge paper response, it would be a steal.

As for particular concerns, I would just have 3. One is the price seems rather high for everyday searches; the second is that all requests should have a hold time to protect yourself from accidentally releasing personal information that person did not know would be dug up; and the third is that there is no information on there as to what service you do if the request is denied, as that is when the real headaches start. Filing and getting a response is easy, its when they deny you that things get hard because there is the list of exceptions, different ways to appeal depending on the agency, etc. What help do people get navigating the hard part, which, incidentally, is what keeps me and a surprisingly large number of attorneys in business.

Re:From the founder (1)

vux984 (928602) | about a year ago | (#43152829)

I don't see how that is anywhere near the $4 for a request given that most responses I deal with now are done electronically

[...]
a somewhat exorbitant price
[...]

which, incidentally, is what keeps me and a surprisingly large number of attorneys in business.

Wait? Are you an attorney? And your quibbling over a $4 service fee as 'exorbitant'? $4 will buy me around 45 seconds with my last lawyer and all he did was sign some filled out templates and boilerplate his assistant prepared for him to transfer a couple property titles? I think he cost me close $600.

Would it be cheaper to hire you to file a FOIA request? What would you charge?

Re:From the founder (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year ago | (#43153099)

I don't charge anything to file most requests because it is a loss leader for me. I make my money on requests that are complex, denied, or both. Maneuvering through the legal minefield of a denied request is the complicated part. But then again, I don't take requests from random people, I refer them to one of the free alternatives to form the request and discover who to mail it to.

But my problem isn't that it is expensive compared to me, it is the expense compared to the other alternatives (because I'm way too much for an average person). From my view of the website, it takes just as much time compared to the free alternatives (if you don't count the time to actually post the letter because that varies so much) and most responses are small or electronic, so you don't really benefit from muckrock's processing service either. Additionally, you can get most of the benefit of their service for free anyway, its right on their own website. Compared to professional attorney help, yes it is cheap; compared to the help you actually need, it is quite expensive.

Re:From the founder (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year ago | (#43153741)

In the interest of merging threads, he responded to me here http://yro.slashdot.org/comments.pl?sid=3540255&cid=43153199 and I posted a response to him.

Re:From the founder (2, Informative)

v3rgEz (125380) | about a year ago | (#43153199)

Our service has two big fan groups: People who have never filed a request, and people who file a lot and would like help tracking. For either, if we can save them a half hour hunting for how to fill out the request, to remember to follow up, to sort out which documents went to which request, to figure out where to send the request, we think $4 is a fantastic value. If your time is worth less than that, hopefully we can serve as a good resource just for reference purposes.

Right now, we manually help people with the appeals process, and can recommend lawyers we've worked with in the past if it comes to a lawsuit. It's definitely the trickier part, but we recently launched a free question and answer tool (https://www.muckrock.com/questions/) in addition to our individual support. Hope that helps.

Re:From the founder (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year ago | (#43153639)

Incidentally, I was talking to someone in my office about a problem they have in their area of law and it made me realize how I'm used to dealing with the complicated parts and it is easy to forget how hard something can be for the uninitiated. It is easy for me to say, "its not that hard, just spit out the form, fill in what you want remembering the magic words they sometimes use that people don't commonly know, the proper fee and other hoops your particular letter might have and check OGIS for the address," but I can see how the total package, paying someone else to worry about it and getting help in the appeal can be worth it, especially when people don't already have a system in place for doing this. I don't think I'll refer everyone I get to you, but I can think of a few categories where I will.

By the way, I totally don't mean to insult your reference material. The random sampling of letters I looked at were quite good.

Re:From the founder (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year ago | (#43155301)

I have a third potential group of clients. People who are afraid that a FOIA request will get them some unfriendly attention. Specifically, I've considered making a FOIA request of my local government, but at that level, if you do something to upset the local police, they know where you live. (I know many government officials try to be honest, but there are enough that the risk isn't negligible.)

Re:From the founder (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year ago | (#43156835)

I'm not sitting on this website to read your garbage advertisements. This shit just lost /. another (once) loyal member. Good luck on your travels all ... not you Roblimo - you can die in a fire.

MySociety's free WhatDoTheyKnow and Alaveteli (2, Informative)

Anonymous Coward | about a year ago | (#43151541)

If you're in the UK, check out http://www.whatdotheyknow.com [whatdotheyknow.com], which does a lot of this for free. Also, they've been setting up lots of international branches of it (an open source project) called 'Alavateli': http://www.alaveteli.org/ [alaveteli.org].

Another Roblimo Slashvertisement! (3)

RocketRabbit (830691) | about a year ago | (#43151569)

Thanks, Roblimo, for another Slashvertisement. At least the Reddit stories that are paid placement ads have a blue background.

Why even have the "interview" shtick, and a better question - why the hell would a person pay money to some jerkass to file a FOIA claim? They are really easy to file yourself.

Keep this up, Slashdot! Pretty soon you'll be just as credible as a Jimmy Saville endorsed nanny service and have just as many patrons as well.

dude (2)

Anonymous Coward | about a year ago | (#43151763)

Are you kidding? Slashdot is barely a step above supermarket tabloids as it is. Let's see, today we've had: scam promotion [slashdot.org], alien life discovered [slashdot.org], religion helps science [slashdot.org], and government conspiracy (the story you just read).

Did I say "a step above"? Sorry, I was holding the picture upside down.

come for the comments (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year ago | (#43152007)

Well at least the topics are a bit off the mainstream path and users typically rip to shreds garbage posts.

Re:come for the comments (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year ago | (#43152821)

Yeah then I see stories dominated by shotgun-hugging bunker-crouching nutbags who are convinced the apocalypse-slash-dystopia is right around the corner and I wonder if everything else that seems normal is that fucking screwball too and I just don't notice anymore.

Let's see . . . (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year ago | (#43151585)

If it wasn't for retards hacking NASA for info about aliens and foreign/internal (rhetoric spinners) using only parts of the information against the government, it'd be a great idea.

The reality is that no one wants to give up the information internally because:
1) They're lazy and it's a lot of work
2) No one wants to be responsible if something actually secret gets out

It's not a conspiracy (for the most part), it's just a cluster-fark.

Here's another example:
Property records, public so you have the right to know who your neighbor is, reality: every time you buy a house, your name gets lifted from public records for marketing . . . and NEVER gets off of the lists.

Re:Let's see . . . (1)

flayzernax (1060680) | about a year ago | (#43151733)

Agreed but our government agencies of all caliber, law enforcing or otherwise have such a bad history with coming clean and being honest and open.

I mean "It's the American way" to lie and cheat your way to the top of the pile is a coined phrase regarding our politicians.

Why blame people for the nutty shit they do in response to the absolute insanity of our societies leadership. I know I know, two wrongs don't make a right. Nor are they an accurate means of finding the "truth".

But it doesn't matter if there's aliens on the moon or not. No one has faith or trusts anything anymore. And as far as housing and Census records, well, thats just a price we pay for living socially.

In a purely logical sense, believing anything you hear or see at school, on T.V. or from a politician in this country has been a bad idea (TM) for a long time, including radio, hell H.G. Wells comes to mind even though they sparsely advertised that as a work of fiction. So smart people are left in a perpetual state of dis-belief of everything with the only recourse to dig up evidence for stuff through FOIA or illegitimate means like hacking. And this goes for mildly secret stuff like diplomatic cables, Enron financial records, tax information on Google, etc...

Re:Let's see . . . (1)

tnk1 (899206) | about a year ago | (#43151753)

Or 3) They're not lazy, but constant reporting is a gigantic pain in the ass and a time sink.

All that data is public, but someone has to get it for you, since they can't just let you go wandering around AND they have to make sure it doesn't disappear. Even if it isn't in the top secret Black Library, someone has to store it, index it, and then find it when you request it. And all of them are government employees making a fairly high wage. If they are pulling your constant crackpot FOIA requests so you can prove that Area 51 is sponsoring the La Leche League conference for the Virgo Cluster, they aren't doing their other jobs.

Transparency and copying thousands of pages of documents for you isn't free. Even computerized files take effort to manage, albeit not as much as digging up a paper document in a warehouse.

Re:Let's see . . . (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year ago | (#43152085)

It seems like a sector of the government that some of the population has a demand for, maybe we should increase the budget of some of these departments and train more FOIA agents vs other sectors.

Re:Let's see . . . (1)

X0563511 (793323) | about a year ago | (#43152135)

We pay taxes. The personnel and supplies required for transparency should be paid for from that.

Re:Let's see . . . (1)

tnk1 (899206) | about a year ago | (#43153961)

Curiosity can lead to requests without bounds. Even requesting free gold bars might give some people pause because that shit gets heavy, takes up space, and is increasingly hard to protect as you get more of it. Information, while it frequently does take the form of photocopies, is also often considered to be something cheap and easy to reproduce, which of course it is not. There are costs even to preparation of computerized documents considering that, besides the national security angle, there are considerations of privacy as well as formatting. Even redaction that is done in complete compliance with the law, and no with no ulterior motives, will require humans to evaluate each page that is released. Human eyes are expensive, and computers generally cannot do that job perfectly (yet).

Of course, while there is a process to weed out frivolous requests, it is a process that frequently gets criticized, rightfully or wrongly, when it is employed.

So, ultimately, it is an expense that can grow all out of proportion to the amount of taxes paid. Taxes pay for a lot, and you might argue that this is something that needs to be paid for as opposed to , but even if it was, the cost could still grow out of proportion.

Re:Let's see . . . (1)

geekoid (135745) | about a year ago | (#43153975)

Because taxes are magical.

We don't want to pay more in taxes, but we demand you add these new line items. herp derp.

We pay taxes for existing budget, want to add billion dollar systems to make everything online all at one? need more revenues. i.e. higher taxes.

Re:Let's see . . . (1)

X0563511 (793323) | about a year ago | (#43156945)

We don't want MORE taxes. We want the existing taxes to be spent more appropriately/intelligently. Do that, and suddenly you have the budget to do the things that should be done. Of course, good luck making that happen. But that's why they call this a discussion.

Re:Let's see . . . (1)

drinkypoo (153816) | about a year ago | (#43152507)

For old data, it makes sense that it should cost something. For new data, that is stupid. Uploading and indexing that information to something should be SOP now.

Re:Let's see . . . (1)

geekoid (135745) | about a year ago | (#43153981)

No. Sorry, but system don't magical change themselves to add new features.

Re:Let's see . . . (1)

drinkypoo (153816) | about a year ago | (#43155395)

No. Sorry, but system don't magical change themselves to add new features.

Funny, I don't remember you always being a giant douchebag.

By now there is no excuse for new records to not be computerized, whatsoever.

it's a lost cause (-1)

Anonymous Coward | about a year ago | (#43151605)

most of the sheeple don't want to know what's going on in their governments and that's all to the governments' best interests anyway. Makes it easier to declare martial law when the population reduction pogrom sets into full gear.

Re:it's a lost cause (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year ago | (#43151777)

Sheeple? Just kill yourself now, please.

The Simple Truth (1)

Isaac-1 (233099) | about a year ago | (#43151783)

The simple truth of the matter is often these documents are not laying around where they can be easily handed out, there are costs involved in time and effort to compile the information being requested, reviewing it for confidential information (peoples names, addresses, SSN's, etc.) so it is often not so much about hiding facts as it is not wanting to deal with the headache of complying with what is so often seen as either a casual inquiry, or some nut case that just wants to stir up trouble.

Re:The Simple Truth (1)

spire3661 (1038968) | about a year ago | (#43152323)

Then funds should be set aside so that all FOIA relevant material be categorized in a way that is easy searchable and accessible. It should be SOP that any non-classified information be formatted in a way that is easy to disseminate electronically for anyone to view.

Re:The Simple Truth (1)

Isaac-1 (233099) | about a year ago | (#43157043)

The problem with that is it adds 5 hours of paperwork to what would be a simple 5 minute task.

Re:The Simple Truth (1)

spire3661 (1038968) | about a year ago | (#43162549)

Age of Information means that encoding it and categorizing it is just another part of the process in spending from the public coffers. If you spend public money, we want a searchable index of what, when, where, and how. This is not an unreasonable request.

Public records made easy (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year ago | (#43153207)

The purpose of the federal Freedom of Information Act and like state laws is to allow inspection of government for wrong doing. Unfortunately, many abuse the records act to seek out wrong doing of the citizen and then charge large fee's to make that information inaccessible on their private websites. Mugshots.com comes to mind.

If records requests are about exposing government corruption I am for it. If a records request is expose a citizens wrong doing, I am against it.

Clap trap (1)

geekoid (135745) | about a year ago | (#43153947)

"many local, state and federal government bodies would just as soon never tell you anything."
Not true.
1) There isn't a procedure in place
2) To make systems online and available takes time.
3) It cost money to do so.
4) request for information is growing at a very fast rate.

Re:Clap trap (1)

Roblimo (357) | about a year ago | (#43155719)

Right. When you were a reporter, all government personnel were gushingly eager to spill all their secrets to you

When I was one, they weren't. We had to like, dig. And file FOIA requests. And buy drinks for disgruntled administrative assistants.

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