Homeland Security Ignores Own Guidelines To Make It Prohibitively Expensive For Media Companies To Obtain FOIA Docs

from the say-what-now? dept

I currently have a FOIA request in to the Department of Homeland Security, and the fee waiver request was initially denied because DHS told me that I was considered a “commercial requester” since I was using Muckrock’s platform to make the request. We’re currently appealing this designation (and DHS seems to be ignoring our appeal, as it’s been months…), but in another such situation, DHS has once again, declared Muckrock a “commercial requester” in order to demand fees — on the basis of the fact that people might actually read the documents, and that somehow advances Muckrock’s “commercial” interests.

Now, some background is important here. The whole point of waiving fees for “commercial” requesters is to avoid companies doing things like building up private databases by use of FOIA requests and then selling them. It’s not for the purpose of blocking commercial media properties from doing journalism with the documents. In fact, Homeland Security’s own FOIA guidelines make it clear that for-profit media operations using FOIA for reporting purposes are not commercial requesters:

A request for records supporting the news-dissemination function of the requester shall not be considered to be for a commercial use.

Seems simple enough, but apparently the DHS wants to ignore its own guidelines when it comes to Muckrock. Here’s what DHS told Muckrock:

Regarding the “commercial requester” classification, the Agency has also properly determined that the requested records would be used for commercial purposes. Although you assert that any responsive documents would be made available to the public for free on MuckRock’s website, the Agency must balance the commercial interest against the public interest. Making documents available on MuckRock’s website, even at no charge, drives traffic to the website and furthers its commercial purposes. Your request does not provide any information that would allow the Agency to determine that the public interest outweighs this commercial interest.

But, that kind of argument makes no sense, and would effectively mean that basically all news media organizations who post the relevant source documents from FOIA requests are no longer considered “news media” requesters, but rather “commercial requesters.” Because, of course, part of the media function of posting any such document is to “drive traffic.” As Muckrock points out in response to this news, there are over 300 media organizations who contribute such documents to DocumentCloud (and we’re among them). Many of those organizations are for-profit and clearly media operations. The attempt to claim that Muckrock is a “commercial requester” is clearly ignoring both the clear intent of the commercial requester status and DHS’s own guidelines in how to deal with media requests from for-profit media properties.

It’s almost as if Homeland Security is looking for bogus excuses to make it prohibitively expensive for media sites, reporting in the public interest, to actually get the documents they request.

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Companies: muckrock

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Comments on “Homeland Security Ignores Own Guidelines To Make It Prohibitively Expensive For Media Companies To Obtain FOIA Docs”

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Anonymous Coward says:

FOIA requests are only granted if lawsuits are fought in court, and the plaintiff wins. The reason the US government does this, is to make FOIA requests prohibitively expensive and time consuming. As your last paragraph in the article states.

America is ruled by a shadow government, in secret. Even if the plaintiff wins and the US Gov actually hands over all the documents requested, which is doubtful. All the words in the documents have black shadows over them anyways.

I give credit to individuals who take the time to file FOIA request, pony up the money, fight it in court, wait a few years, and finally, maybe, get the redacted documents.

I give more credit to individuals who bypass all that. Blow the whistle and release the ALL the hidden documents, unredacted.

In the span of two years, Ed Snowden has accomplished what would have been impossible otherwise. He gave Americans a behind the curtains view into the shadow government’s secret policies, actions, laws and abuses.

Bergman (profile) says:

Re: Re:

If it’s legal to redact every word in a document relevant to a FOIA request that does not step on any of the exempt types of data, then it would be equally legal to redact documents in response to a government subpoena.

Somehow, I don’t think the Department of Homeland Security would be amused if someone did it. And yet, it’s just as legal when the Department does it.

Michael (profile) says:

the Agency must balance the commercial interest against the public interest. Making documents available on MuckRock’s website, even at no charge, drives traffic to the website and furthers its commercial purposes.

So since you have some commercial interest in making these documents available to the public, for the sake of public interest we are not going to allow you to make the documents public.

Good for Muckrock must be bad for the public – there is no way that it could simply be good for everyone.

I have been convinced that HomeSec is corrupt and lying and doing their best to twist the law to protect their own interests. It turns out that they may just be stupid.

David says:

Re: Re: Re:

“Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity.”

You can still believe in Hanlon’s Razor. It doesn’t rule out malice over stupidity, just reminds you that often people mistake stupidity as malice.

But you’re right. Stupidity doesn’t adequately explain this, therefore it is malice.

tqk (profile) says:

“If you make peaceful change impossible, you make violent revolution inevitable.” -J.F. Kennedy

When they can’t even be bothered to understand and follow their own posted guidelines, it becomes pretty obvious what’s really going on. You should be glad they’re even bothering to humor you instead of busting down your door and hauling you away.

All this freedom and democracy crap you keep nattering about is distracting them from their real purpose. This will have to stop. You have been warned. Don’t let it happen again.

Anonymous Coward says:

This is the same thing you are seeing thoughout government in nearly all branches. The only reason you would redefine the english language would be to hide your dirty laundry.

The government has enough dirty laundry that wouldn’t stand the light of day to make all this necessary. The very fact that there is a limitation on how long before they have to respond and then waiting till a court forces them to reveal tells you this isn’t about transparency. It’s about anything but transparency in government.

Which brings up the reasons why the government is steadily seeking more ways to trample your 4ᵀᴴ amendment rights without revealing how and what. We have a government quite willing to violate all Constitutional rights while they go about doing whatever it is they want.

GEMont (profile) says:

Re: Re:

“…while they go about doing whatever it is they want.”

I would think that this is exactly what most people should be concerned about – just what is it that they actually want?

It is certainly not what Americans in general want, or they would not need any of this paid-for-by-tax-payer subterfuge, deception, and word re-meaning.

Methinks it would advance the US public good to start determining just what it is that the USG actually wants and what it is they are working towards getting – at your expense.


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