Glimmers of sunshine

Freedom of information can take many forms, but the principle stays the same

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rebecca@sfbg.com

For 29 years, San Francisco Bay Area journalists have gathered in mid-March — around the birthday of founding father and free-press advocate James Madison — to recognize reporters, attorneys, citizens, and others who fight to shake or keep information free.

The act of standing up to defend the principle of freedom of information can be rather unglamorous, sometimes leading to grueling lawsuits. It's grown even more complicated with the rise of the Internet, the decline of traditional newspapers, and the dawn of an Information Age that delivers instantaneous material that is at once more slippery and abundant than ever.

And yet, the digital realm has opened up a whole new battlefield in the fight for open access to relevant information the public needs to know. This year, the Northern California chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists' Freedom of Information Committee took the rare step of granting a posthumous Public Service James Madison Award to Internet activist Aaron Swartz.

As a leader in the digital rights movement, Swartz, who died at the age of 26 by taking his own life, was on the forefront of a movement that fought to uphold open access to information in the face of a corporate power grab that threatened to result in online censorship.

The fight against SOPA (the Stop Online Piracy Act) and PIPA (the Protect Intellectual Property Act) in early 2012 marked just one of Swartz's accomplishments as he fought for free and open access to information. Among his other contributions was RECAP, an online listing of court materials that allowed free access to documents held in the federal, paywall-protected court filing system called PACER.

To commemorate Swartz's work, the Bay Guardian presents in this issue an illustrated history of his activism. While recipients of James Madison Awards have typically been individuals who took on government bureaucracies to wrest information out of the shadows and into the public eye, Swartz's battle revolved around freeing information that is locked up by private interests, or protected by copyright.

"We need to take information, wherever it is stored, make our copies and share them with the world," he wrote in a 2008 essay titled "Guerilla Open Access Manifesto." "We need to take stuff that's out of copyright and add it to the archive. We need to buy secret databases and put them on the Web. We need to download scientific journals and upload them to file sharing networks."

But first, here are a few updates on the fight for open access to information in San Francisco and beyond.

 

NO SHINING EXAMPLE

In 1999, San Francisco voters enacted a law to strengthen citizens' access to government records and public meetings. To ensure that the open-access law was properly upheld, it also created a local body called the Sunshine Ordinance Task Force.

At each meeting, San Franciscans frustrated by their inability to get the information they sought from city bureaucracies appear before the board to air their grievances, in the hopes that the decisions to withhold documents will be reversed. Typically, citizens lodge around 100 complaints per year, according to task force clerk Victor Young.