Nothing to read in Cuba, Part Two

Posted by: on Apr 22, 2008 | No Comments


(Note: I didn’t realize this essay would require posting in two parts – read the post below first! Robbie LaFleur)

Poverty in Cuba is crushing. The infrastructure of Havana and the small towns through which we traveled was in depressingly disastrous shape. We visited a group of elderly people in a ‘home church’ in Havana. They can’t afford the modest bus fare to get to the Cathedral. They support one another spiritually and in other ways. Our group was moved by these parishioners and wanted to make a donation. When asked about their greatest needs, they said basic pain killers, like Ibuprofen. Remarkably, they could not tell us what a large bottle would cost. The pills are so expensive that no one buys more than a few at a time.

I have the highest respect, admiration and love for the people I met in Cuba. Their warmth and hospitality humbled us each day. And I respect the Cuban government’s long-term dedication to health care and literacy. But lack of freedom of movement and lack of access to information are other forms of poverty, and create a situation that makes people guarded and cautious. The harshest government criticism I ever heard was the often-repeated phrase, “These are hard times for Cuba.” (Compare that to Minnesota bloggers talking about the Legislature!)

As a librarian for the Legislature, I spend a great deal of time promoting government transparency. Legislative staff members from many offices work tirelessly to find more ways to get legislative information online and to reach citizens. As a board member of the Minnesota Coalition on Government Information, I work with a group devoted to citizen access to information. We present an annual “Freedom of Information” award. Through the lens of my experience, I was amazed at information isolation of Cubans.

So I commend the Minnesota House of Representatives. Trade and open borders are incredibly important in helping the people of Cuba. Why should Cuba be singled out for onerous trade restrictions? When a Cuban bishop visited the Twin Cities last fall he asked, “What about human rights issues in China?” Rep. Heidgerken echoed that sentiment on the floor of the House, noting “I have a bigger issue with China than Cuba.”

Significantly freer trade could not help but improve access to information for Cubans. Think of the amount of personal business we now do via the Web. How long can the Cuban government continue to restrict Web access and also offer increased business opportunities?

Some recent articles on Cuba are optimistic in tone. The March 3 issue of Business Week featured “After the Smoke Clears,” predicting economic growth potential in spite of current difficult conditions for Cubans. I hope that’s true! On the other hand, current government repression of opposition groups is detailed in the May, 2008, issue of Harper’s, “The Battle of Ideas: Searching for the Opposition in Post-Fidel Cuba.”

So thanks to all the Minnesota legislators who support greater trade between Minnesota and Cuba. Rep. Kahn said that by passing the resolution, Minnesota is sending the message that it wants to open up “economic, intellectual and social” communications with Cuba. But in addition to farm products, I hope that when travel opens up that we can send LOTS of Minnesotans with plasterboard and paint!

Robbie LaFleur (rlafleur@lrl.leg.mn)

Nothing to read in Cuba, Part One

Posted by: on Apr 22, 2008 | No Comments

It was heartening to see the passage of the resolution supporting trade in Cuba in the Minnesota House of Representatives on April 17, 86-9. (More information from MPR and the House of Representatives Session Daily) Several members have visited Cuba. Rep. Phyllis Kahn, author of the resolution, is a tireless advocate for more open trade. Rep. Erhardt visited five years ago. Representatives Magnus and Juhnke visited just this month with a trade delegation from the Minnesota Department of Agriculture. Their personal experiences strengthened their resolve to improve trade with Cuba – to do what we can to help Cubans.

I visited Cuba for ten days in January with a group from St. Mark’s Cathedral, sent to strengthen relationships with Cubans generally, and in particular, the Episcopalian Diocese. The trip was definitely life-changing. I went with a very open mind – after all, isn’t health care available to all? Isn’t there an extremely high level of literacy? I came back with a degree of anger I had not anticipated. Does it matter if there is a high level of literacy if there is nothing to read? Perhaps librarians are used to a high level of information saturation, but don’t we all enjoy access to hundreds of newspapers and websites online? Americans drown in books and magazines. Cubans do not. Before we left for Cuba, our group members stocked up on useful items to give as gifts – shampoo, soap, aspirin, etc. Only one person, Ellen, chose the category of Spanish-language reading materials; she brought a Spanish language women’s magazine. After checking out the clothes and make-up tips in Siempre Mujer over Cuban rum one evening, we left it in the dorm lounge area in the cathedral where we were staying. There were no other reading materials around. Later, after midnight, I walked through the lounge area and found the Dean of the cathedral sitting by a reading lamp, engrossed in the magazine. The next morning the church cleaning woman was poring over the magazine. Later she found Ellen and hugged her warmly. “Gracias! I love you.”

Does it matter if there is a high level of literacy if access to information is cruelly restricted? Web access is not allowed. Even clergy in Havana have to go to a tourist hotel and purchase Internet time to search the Web. I believe it was $4.00 for a few minutes. Keep in mind that average salaries are around $20/month. We stayed with a family in a small village in the countryside. The eldest daughter was beginning her college at a regional university, where she planned to become a lawyer and was studying human rights. Is it possible get a well-rounded legal education without unfettered access to the Web?

E-mail is allowed, but perhaps not trusted. After Raul Castro gained more power recently a friend sent the text of relevant New York Times and Los Angeles Times articles to a Cuban colleague. His response was pretty immediate, but guarded. “Are you doing well? How is your family? ”

Cogi-tations Meeting with Jim Nobles

Posted by: on Apr 9, 2008 | No Comments

Last night (April 8) Jim Nobles spoke about his work as the Minnesota Legislative Auditor. His conversation with our group was thoughtful and inspiring. He talked about the mission of the office as good government. In a democracy elections are important, but good government also requires effective mechanisms in place, which includes an oversight office like the OLA. He felt privileged, “It’s rare to be free of the pull of partisan politics and find objective facts.” Their mission is to strengthen government accountability.

When asked how he ensures that the reports and writing of the staff are objective and free of bias, he mentioned two points. One way to defeat bias is with an absolute commitment to
accuracy. He also has many people review all the reports, and even his half-page memos.

He talked about a point he wants to make to policymakers who are committed to cutting budgets and making government smaller. Even if large cuts are made, “At the end of the day, Minnesota government will still be really big, really complicated, and really important.”
Like it or not, government delivers important functions, and they are complex processes, as complex as the systems in large corporations. It is the role of legislators to keep pressure on government to work well, and to expect high performance of agencies.

Robbie LaFleur

MN FOI Celebration Updated!

Posted by: on Mar 7, 2008 | No Comments
I know this looks familar – but there are some updates

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE – March 5, 2008

Freedom of Information Award Recognizes
Bridge Collapse Coverage, Pro se Legal Services

Silha Center’s Jane Kirtley Envisions “The Light at the End of the Tunnel”

The people’s right to know assumes a vast network of agencies and individuals is committed to affirmation of that right. Recipients of the 2008 John R. Finnegan Freedom of Information Award employ that right to the benefit of readers. The Minnesota Coalition on Government Information (MnCOGI) will present this year’s awards to highlight the public’s right to know and to kickoff Sunshine Week 2008.

By any measure, the collapse of the 35W Bridge is the story of 2007 – covered by every news medium from every journalistic angle. With this award the MnCOGI specifically notes the ways in which these journalists have enhanced public understanding of the tragedy through their explicit use of the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) and the Minnesota Data Practices Act to gain access to public information.

Recipients of the John R. Finnegan FOI Award include several investigative journalists including Associated Press staffers Martiga Lohn and Brian Bakst and Star Tribune reporters Dan Browning, Kevin Diaz, Patrick Doyle, Mike Kaszuba, Tony Kennedy and Paul McEnroe.

The Coalition will also confer two Honorable Mention Awards. An Honorable Mention Award will be given to Susan Albright, former Editorial Page Editor at the Star Tribune. Albright, now with MinnPost, is recognized for her articulate appreciation of the dependence of a free press on access to government information and for her consistent editorial support of the principles of open government.

Recipients of the second Honorable Mention Award are Susan Ledray and Katrina Zabinski, coordinators of the innovative “Self Help Center” (SHC) in Minnesota’s Fourth Judicial District. As designers of the SHC Ledray and Zabinski explicitly used government information to both define and meet the needs of a targeted population. The nomination document notes that the SHC serves “thousands of pro se litigants in Minnesota to move through court more efficiently, more effectively and more informed.” In the words of Judge Edward Lynch, the SHC “provides information, resources and assistance to thousands of litigants representing themselves in court proceedings.” The Self Help Center is now available in all Minnesota counties.
Awards will be presented at Freedom of Information Day ceremonies on Friday, March 14, Noon-1:00 at the Minneapolis Central Library.
Keynote speaker for the event is Jane Kirtley, Director of the Silha Center for the Study of Media Ethics and Law at the University of Minnesota. Kirtley is an internationally-known expert and lecturer on issues of media law and freedom of information. Prior to joining the U of M School of Journalism and Mass Communication in 1999, Kirtley was the Executive Director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press and a columnist for American Journalism Review. Her presentation is entitled “The Light at the End of the Tunnel: The Outlook for FOI.”
John R. Finnegan, Sr., for whom the award is named, is a Minnesota journalist and renowned defender of the First Amendment and the role of informed citizens in a democracy.

The Minnesota Coalition on Government Information is a nonprofit 501(c)(3) corporation representing individuals and organizations committed to open access to public information in print, electronic and digital formats. The Coalition involves media representatives, attorneys, librarians, computer professionals, state and local government officials, educators and others who care about transparency in government, information access and the role of an informed citizenry in a democracy.

# # #

Contact: Mary Treacy
Minnesota Coalition on Government Information
mncogi@gmail.com
http://www.mncogi.org

Another reason that opting out is lame

Posted by: on Nov 26, 2007 | No Comments

A recent article in the Minnesota Monitor, “Facebook’s Beacon Sparks Privacy Complaints from Users,” relates the story of a Facebook user whose online purchase of movie tickets through Fandango sparked a message to all his friends. The Facebook response? “Facebook says its users can “opt out” of having their private purchases reported to the world.”



Recent Freedom of Information Act article

Posted by: on Jul 6, 2007 | No Comments

FOIA Facts: Two Steps Forward, (At Least) One Step BackBy Scott A. Hodes, Published on June 25, 2007
[Mr. Hodes served at the Department of Justice’s Office of Information and Privacy from 1991 until 1998. His website is InfoPrivacylaw.com, and he is a member of the DC and Maryland bars.]

Public Access to government records is moving forward in at least a couple of areas. The Department of Justice has released a searchable Foreign Agents Registration Act database, available here. While not all FARA documents are available due to some privacy issues that the Department of Justice is still working out, a publicly available database is a great step in the direction of public access to documents.
And the FOIA amendments continue to move along in Congress. The House has passed its version, and Senate approval is pending the removal of a once secret hold put on the legislation by Sen. Jon Kyle of Arizona. Kyle claims he put the hold on the bill because of Department of Justice objections to the bill (which makes me think that the Department of Justice folks all failed civics class because they can offer changes to the bill through different legislators such as the previously mentioned Sen. Kyle). While I have some trepidation about some parts of the amendments, overall they are another step in the right direction in fixing some of the problems in FOIA processing. And I also believe that, eventually, the amendments will pass in some form and become law.
However, recent moves by the administration are at least one step back in public access to government records. The White House has recently taken steps to make visitor logs to the White House inaccessible through the Freedom of Information Act. In the past, the logs were maintained by the Secret Service, which is a component agency of the Department of Homeland Security. A requester could seek the records through a FOIA request to the Secret Service. However, the administration recently brokered a deal through the National Archives in which the logs for the White House and the Vice President’s residence are no longer considered to be maintained by the Secret Service, but by a component of the White House that is not subject to the FOIA. Thus, the only means of access to these logs is through the Presidential Records Act, which withholds the documents until the current administration is long gone from Washington, D.C.
These maneuverings, have been, and continue to be contested by a number of plaintiffs. The issues are whose records are they (White House or Secret Service); and if they belong to the Secret Service, must they be released pursuant to the FOIA. Regardless of the outcome of the litigation, the mere fact that groups have had to go to court to get access to the identity of visitors to the White House and the Vice-President’s residence and office is a huge step back for public access to information. And the bigger question is, what other government records formerly covered by FOIA have been transferred to non-FOIA status recently? The answer to that determines how many steps back have been taken, not just for the FOIA, but for democracy itself.
Copyright © 1996-2007 LLRX, LLC.
http://www.llrx.com/columns/foia42.htm
Justia Legal WebSite Design

Recommended reading on the MN Data Practices Act

Posted by: on Apr 19, 2007 | No Comments

The recent issue of Minnesota Cities from the League of Minnesota Cities includes a useful overview of the Minnesota Data Practices Act, “Dealing with Data Requests,” by Tracie Chamberlain. The clear information is geared to the needs of city employees, but interesting to a broader audience.

Two thoughts on Web filtering

Posted by: on Apr 17, 2007 | No Comments

I was skimming last month’s issue of Government Technology. An essay, “The Cost of Free Wi-fi,” discusses the use of filtering software by cities providing free wi-fi access, fearing liability for the actions of users on the network. I am guessing that most MNCOGI supporters would agree with the author’s thoughts.

Shane Peterson writes, “I pay taxes, and I don’t care about who does what on a Wi-Fi network supported by my tax dollars. I don’t think I’m alone. It’s like being offended that some people use taxpayer-funded interstate highways to drive to Nevada to gamble or engage in other, “What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas” activities.”

His essay ends with, “It’s not for government to say what Web sites a person visits. Unless, of course, that government’s headquartered in Beijing.”

Second, as Director of the Minnesota Legislative Reference Library, I have been asked a few times in past years whether the Legislative Reference Library public access computers have filtering software. They do not – what if users were searching for information on breast cancer, or sex education, or many other things that might be blocked? This morning I noted a book being returned to our library, one that certainly would get filtered out, a 1994 report from the Alan Guttmacher Institute, Sex and America’s Teenagers.” Robbie LaFleur

Hands-on Access to Government Information

Posted by: on Apr 11, 2007 | No Comments

An article in the Star Tribune, “Of, and For, The People,” discusses citizens academies run by cities. Attendees learn about all the departments and budgeting – it is an example of hands-on access to government information! The picture at left is a group from the Hopkins Citizens Academy. From the article: “The goal is to give residents insight into what the city does behind the scenes. But there are side benefits. Participants are likely candidates the city can pluck for its police reserves, boards or commissions. And they often have fun.”

Google seeks better access to gov’t info

Posted by: on Apr 7, 2007 | No Comments

Google seeks better access to government information

Oct 25, 2006

By Daniel Pulliam
dpulliam@govexec.com

Officials from the leading Internet search engine are working to remove barriers that prevent their technology from reaching vast troves of information buried in government databases.

Internet users want government information because it has a reputation for being reliable and accurate, said J.L. Needham, a strategic partner development manager at Google. But while portions of agency Web sites are easily indexed by Google and other common search engines, the engines cannot search other areas, known as the deep Web.

For instance, Google cannot scan information in the database housed at the Environmental Protection Agency’s Regulations.gov Web site, Needham said. The site allows users to view government regulations and post comments on proposed agency rules.

“If you were a business owner and found out you were potentially subject to a new regulation that you wanted to find out more information on, it may be difficult to find this information using a search engine like Google,” Needham said. “The problem is that search engines are unable to crawl the full text of many government agencies’ databases.”

As much as 40 percent of the content on agency Web sites is invisible to Google’s crawlers, Needham said. This means that for a majority of Internet users who do not know how to look beyond a search engine site, that information is effectively invisible.

Needham said he is meeting with a variety of agencies to discuss how the information housed in their databases can be made available in the search results from engines such as Google, Yahoo or MSN. One method would be to use Google Sitemaps, which enhances Google’s search results, Needham said.

Implementation of Google Sitemaps by a federal institution that maintains one of the world’s largest networks of sites, including many databases, doubled the number of Web links found by Google, Needham said. This allowed for millions of new documents to be included in search engine results, he said.

A Dec. 16, 2005, memorandum from Clay Johnson, deputy director for management at the Office of Management and Budget, required all agencies by Sept. 1, 2006, to set up their public information so that it is searchable. It stated that “increasingly sophisticated Internet search functions” can “greatly assist agencies in this area.”

Agencies also were required to provide all public data in an open format that allows the public to aggregate “or otherwise manipulate and analyze the data to meet their needs” by Dec. 31, 2005, according to a separate OMB memorandum signed by Johnson on Dec. 17, 2004.

Mark Luttner, director of EPA’s Office of Information Collection in the Office of Environmental Information, said the agency’s e-rulemaking program management office is working with OMB to respond to a recent request from a search engine company that wants to index the Regulations.gov data.

In addition to the technical challenges presented by the company’s request, EPA has to consider whether a commercial company could assert proprietary ownership on federal data and whether providing government data to one company would provide an unequal playing field for other companies, Luttner said.

Needham said Google, for one, does not want to assert ownership over any information obtained from agencies, and agency efforts to improve the ability to search their Web sites would likely be equally beneficial to its competitors.

Commonly used search engines like Google are able to index other agency Web sites used to disseminate information, such as the Small Business Administration’s Business Gateway e-government initiative.

Nancy Sternberg, the program manager for Business Gateway, said the initiative’s Web site, Business.gov, has been optimized for all major search engines. But Business.gov does not contain a separate database, Sternberg said, which would make indexing much more challenging.

Search engines cannot index the Grants.gov database housed at the Health and Human Services Department, according to John Etcheverry, director of grants systems modernization at HHS. But in 2007, Grants.gov will implement a Google search appliance that will let Google scan specified database tables with grant synopsis information, he said. Allowing search engines to crawl the entire Grants.gov database would create security vulnerabilities since it contains sensitive applicant information, he noted.

Google’s forays into the government include a U.S. Government Search Web page, which is intended to provide a single location for searching across agency information and for keeping up-to-date on government news. Google maintains the site is not intended to compete with the government search site hosted by the General Services Administration, called FirstGov.gov. Rather, it is intended to complement it, company officials say.

John Murphy, director of FirstGov.gov technologies, said the FirstGov.gov pages are optimized for all search engines, but the MSN-run search tool is specifically directed to searching government Web pages, including those hosted by state and local governments.


©2007 by National Journal Group Inc. All rights reserved.