Make Free — If You Can’t Open Government, You Don’t Own It

On his first day in office, President Obama embraced the MAKE ethic in the most meaningful way: by opening the government.

Since the infamous Ashcroft memo, issued after September 11, 2001, the U.S. government had treated the Freedom of Information Act as a bug, not a feature. FOIA is the legislation that lets ordinary citizens and corporations ask government agencies to disclose the contents of their files.

You might want to know how the EPA decided that the old Superfund site your kid now plays on was safe for human habitation. You might want to know whether the contractor who supplied your body armor had taken out any big-shot generals for a steak dinner … on a private jet, en route to a Caribbean island.

This is what the FOIA is for, and when it works, it makes government accountable and more secure, rooting out corruption and inefficiency through the time-honored method of sunshine and lots of it.

John Ashcroft, then U.S. attorney general, issued a directive to government agencies on Oct. 12, 2001, that gutted FOIA. Under the new directive, agencies were advised to deny FOIA requests, unless there was a “sound legal basis” for complying with them.

Prior to this, agencies had defaulted to honoring all FOIA requests, unless there was some “foreseeable harm” that could come from them. Effectively, Ashcroft changed FOIA policy to: “We’ll honor your FOIA request — after you win a lawsuit against us.”

So it was a grand and exciting day for activists of all descriptions when, on Jan. 21, 2009, President Barack Obama issued a memo reversing this policy, directing government agencies to “adopt a presumption in favor of disclosure” — that is, to change the government’s default position on revealing what it’s doing from “None of your business” to “Pull up a seat and let me tell you all about it.”

MAKE was founded on the principle that “If you can’t open it, you don’t own it,” the stirring preamble to Mr. Jalopy’s infamous Maker’s Bill of Rights. This is even more true of governments than it is of gadgets. Governments do business on our behalf, with our money, in our country. There’s never a good reason for the government to keep its everyday workings a secret from the people who own it: the citizenry. Secrecy breeds waste, corruption, and insecurity.

President Obama went even further: the Jan. 21 memo tells agencies that: “They should not wait for specific requests from the public. All agencies should use modern technology to inform citizens about what is known and done by their Government. Disclosure should be timely.”

What’s this mean for you? Well, it means that government is in the open data business. From now on, the daily workings are supposed to be an open book. That’s fine news indeed for makers: time to get cracking on the services and systems that make that mountain of data into something meaningful.

Americans could do worse than to look at their British cousins, who, through online services like TheyWorkForYou (, have made a delightful nuisance of themselves by slicing and dicing their government’s records. Just feed in your postal code and out pops your rep’s name, every word she’s uttered, contact details for neighbors of yours looking for support on lobbying her, a one-click way to send her an email, tallies of how often she votes against the party line, and an RSS feed for every word she speaks from here on in.

It’s a measure of just how scared governments get of this kind of thing that the British Parliament tried to pass a law saying that its members didn’t have to publicly disclose the details of their expense reports — that they could keep their spending of public money on personal expenses a secret. Of course, services like TheyWorkForYou helped clobber this initiative by making it trivial for Britons from across the country to send “Are you kidding me?” emails to their Members of Parliament, shocking them into action. Needless to say, the bill failed.

President Obama’s inaugural address lionized “the risk-takers, the doers, the makers of things.” Last time I checked, that was us.

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Cory Doctorow

Cory Doctorow ( is a science fiction author, activist, and journalist.

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