Last week, at the 2013 National Freedom of Information Day celebration held once again at the Newseum Knight Conference Center in Washington, DC, the American Library Association (ALA) presented its annual James Madison Award posthumously to Aaron Swartz who, before his untimely death in January of this year, was an outspoken advocate for freedom of public information. The ALA established the James Madison Award in 1989 and it is presented annually on the anniversary of Madison’s birth to honor individuals or groups who have championed, protected and promoted public access to government information and the public’s right to know at the national level.
One can only speculate if there is a connection between Aaron’s unauthorized release of public documents and his suicide. However, one cannot dispute the government’s action to arrest Aaron in an attempt to restrain and silence his devotion to public access to information. We will never know if Aaron paid with his life for our right to freedom of government information.
So what is the true “cost” of Freedom of Information?
One data point in this equation is provided by the US Department of Justice/Office of Information Policy who reported that the costs of all FOIA related activities in 2011 exceeded $435 million dollars.
Another data point has recently been touted by the sponsors of FOIAOnline and the many First Amendment rights organizations that have come to embrace this initiative. It is now reported that FOIAOnline will save the government over $200 million dollars over five years.
Without critical examination, the press and many of the leading First Amendment groups have accepted the EPA’s research that has been used to justify the government spending more tax payer’s money to compete with FOIA software developed and supported by the commercial sector.
As the clear leader in FOIA processing solutions it is disturbing to watch the FOIAOnline initiative grow to where it is now part of the Draft “FOIA Oversight and Implementation Act of 2013”. This enthusiasm is misplaced as the research used to justify this project is fundamentally flawed and grossly exaggerated – and we can prove it.
Who amongst Congress, the press and First Amendment rights groups has the courage like Aaron to seek the truth and at what cost?