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David Bollier: Kudos to Wikileaks for Prying the Information Loose!

February 11, 2009

David Bollier

I am increasingly convinced that the digitally empowered citizen is going to be a major catalyst for reforming our political system. It will take time. More of politics and journalism must migrate to the Internet, and more citizen experiments must be conducted to see what works best. But we can already see a host of examples where citizens are using online platforms to expose scandals, shame public figures, influence mainstream debate, and secure actual reforms.

In my new book, Viral Spiral, I mention a few noteworthy examples. A handful of students at Swarthmore College and other activists helped expose the troubling software flaws in Diebold electronic voting machines. A network of citizens, consumers, journalists and lawyers helped expose the dangers of the anti-psychotic drug, Zyprexa, through its ZyprexaKills wiki.

The Sunlight Foundation has organized citizens to identify pork-barrel budget earmarks in pending budget legislation – a tactic that the Huffington Post recently used to scrutinize the Obama stimulus bill. The Sunlight Foundation also tracks which legislators are raising money at what parties, and assembled a database showing which legislators are pushing for special tariff breaks for companies at the expense of the U.S. Treasury.

Now the citizen-guerillas have struck again. As reported on Daily Kos [and on this blog], the website Wikileaks has liberated 6,780 reports produced by the Congressional Research Service that were financed by taxpayers, but restricted from general public use. As a repository for thousands of bodies of documents about official power and how it is used and abused, Wikileaks is a fantastic journalistic resource and force for citizen accountability.

In terms of the CRS reports, there’s no reason for secrecy. They are simply general, nonpartisan reference reports that give Members of Congress concise overviews of a given topic, from water pollution to US foreign policy to campaign finance reform and thousands of other subjects. Although the reports are legally in the public domain, Congress has clung to a baroque system of permissions to make the reports available only to select insiders and constituents.

Senators and Representatives like to cite the reports selectively – releasing material when it helps their political agenda, and keeping it secret when it might prove embarrassing. For example, a recent CRS bill contradicts the Republican Party’s talking points on the Obama stimulus bill. There is reportedly a “gray market” for the reports among trade associations and other lobbies with an interest in pending legislation, but the reports — which comprise over 127,000 pages of material and cost more than $1 billion to prepare—are not generally available to the public.

Here’s what Wikileaks has to say about the lockdown of the CRS reports:

Open government lawmakers such as Senators John McCain (R-Arizona) and Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vermont) have fought for years make the reports public, with bills being introduced-and rejected-almost every year since 1998.

CRS reports are highly regarded as non-partisan, in-depth, and timely. The reports top the list of the “10 Most-Wanted Government Documents” compiled by the Washington based Center for Democracy and Technology. The Federation of American Scientists, in pushing for the reports to be made public, stated that the “CRS is Congress’ Brain and it’s useful for the public to be plugged into it,” while Wired magazine called their concealment “the biggest Congressional scandal of the digital age.”

….Free from meaningful public oversight of its work, the CRS, as “Congress’s brain,” is able to influence Congressional outcomes, even when its reports contain errors. Arguably, its institutional power over congress is second only to the parties themselves. Public oversight would reduce its ability to exercise that influence without criticism. That is why it opposes such oversight, and that is why such oversight must be established immediately.

Wikileaks is to be congratulated for opening up the political process and exposing it to the sunlight of citizen oversight. Why should $1 billion of timely, sophisticated research that has enormous political influence and shapes congressional legislation NOT be available to the people who paid for it and are politically affected by it?

David Bollier is the editor of OntheCommons.org, an activist and writer about the commons, and author of Silent Theft, Brand Name Bullies and Viral Spiral (forthcoming). This post originally appeared on ONTHECOMMONS.ORG

Copyright 2009 David Bollier

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