Michael Robertson Facing Resistance To New Gov't Transparency Project

from the sunlight-is-tough dept

Over the last few years, there have been a number of important efforts to increase transparency, openness and accountability from the government -- often by concerned citizens. For example, there have been things like the Sunlight Foundation, as well as efforts by people like Carl Malamud to digitize and make available all sorts of government information. There have also been some specifically targeted projects, such as the effort by some grad students at Princeton to put together the RECAP project to make court documents more easily accessible for free. And, of course, there have been high profile projects such as Wikileaks, which is often looking for leaked, rather than officially obtained, government information.

It looks like serial entrepreneur Michael Robertson is about to get into the game as well. He's planning to launch the "Naked Government," project in the near future. The idea is to catalog public documents, demand more access to information that should be public... and also to highlight who else has been requesting public information. To kick it off, Robertson and others at Naked Government have been making requests for public information, such as names, titles and salary information of various school districts in Southern California.

While many have complied, some have tried to push back. Robertson told me that organizations have even claimed "we don't have a list of people who work for us and their salaries." Others have argued they don't have the information digitally, and thus don't have to provide it. Some asked for outrageously high compensation to produce the data. In one case -- involving Robertson's home school district, the Del Mar Union School District, which his children attend -- the school has argued that privacy rights prevented them from revealing the data.

This resulted in some back and forth between the school district and Naked Government employees, with the school district at first claiming that anyone who made less than $100,000 did not have to have their salaries disclosed. The district's lawyers were relying on a lawsuit where someone had requested the salaries of any Oakland employees making more than $100,000, which the court said should be revealed. The $100,000 number came from the request -- it was never a condition set by the court. The court gave no indication that there was any different rule for those making less than $100,000. At another point, after promising to provide the information to Robertson, the district sent him a list of titles and salaries... but with the names blacked out. This went on for a few weeks, with Robertson threatening legal action before the district finally complied and handed over all the info.

It should be interesting to see where this project goes, as it's always good to see more public accountability efforts out there on public information and records. Robertson, of course, is somewhat famous for ending up in court. I'm having trouble thinking of any of his startups where he didn't end up in court one way or the other -- though, he often used those legal fights to drum up more attention for what his companies were doing, which can be a decent strategy if (a) you're in the legal right and (b) you can withstand the hellish process of being involved in a lawsuit. We'll be watching this project closely and hoping that it adds to government transparency.


Reader Comments (rss)

(Flattened / Threaded)

  1.  
    icon
    Chris in Utah (profile), Nov 18th, 2010 @ 4:45pm

    I'm suddenly reminded of an episode of StargateSG1 where they were on a fairly advanced planet with a public screen of all the government relayed info. Small problem though, you had an off switch.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  2.  
    identicon
    rich, Nov 18th, 2010 @ 5:20pm

    Salary information is always an awkward subject. If government has to disclose salary info for all its employees, then shouldn't the private sector have to do the same? Actually that might not be such a bad thing.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  3.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Nov 18th, 2010 @ 5:34pm

    Re:

    private sector? what brought that in here.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  4.  
    identicon
    Big Al, Nov 18th, 2010 @ 5:37pm

    Re:

    The difference is that, with government employees, we are paying their salaries through our taxes, so the public has a right to know how their money is being spent.
    In a private company salaries are paid out of the profits made through sales of goods or services. In this case the public, as consumers, have no such right - although if you are a shareholder you may be able to make a case for seeing some of the information.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  5.  
    identicon
    Aaron, Nov 18th, 2010 @ 8:09pm

    Hard to take him seriously

    I have a hard time taking Mr. Robertson seriously after the NapsterSucks.com web site from about 2000. Basically, it was a site talking about how Napster was so terrible, and the site had a few awards that were generated by the folks behind the site. One of those awards went to Michael Robertson for inventing mp3.com. Not a big deal until you looked at the whois for the NapsterSucks.com domain, and saw that it was registered to Michael Robertson himself.

    Hard to take someone seriously that sets up web sites just to pat themselves on the back. Pretty funny though.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  6.  
    icon
    ALANTONE (profile), Nov 18th, 2010 @ 9:21pm

    Plenty of sunshine in California and not just from the sun

    Because of the recent controversy in the City of Bell, California may start leading the way in governemt transparency. The State of California now requires Cities to report to them all employee salary information. The state then in turn posts the salary information on their website.

    http://www.sco.ca.gov/compensation_search.html

    Also, many cities are doing this on their own websites. Which I think is a great start!

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  7.  
    icon
    Jay (profile), Nov 18th, 2010 @ 10:56pm

    Inquiry

    Forgive me if I'm new, but who is Michael Robertson? And why does he always end up in court?

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  8.  
    icon
    Mike Masnick (profile), Nov 18th, 2010 @ 11:23pm

    Re: Inquiry

    Forgive me if I'm new, but who is Michael Robertson? And why does he always end up in court?


    Founded MP3.com (sued by the major labels & publishers for copyright infringement).
    Founded Lindows (sued by Microsoft for trademark infringement)
    Founded SIPphone, makers of Gizmo (proactive here: Robertson sued Vonage for locking up its Voip system)
    Founded MP3Tunes music locker (sued by EMI for copyright infringement)

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  9.  
    icon
    Andrew Foster (profile), Nov 19th, 2010 @ 12:05am

    The $100,000 number came from the request -- it was never a condition set by the court. The court gave no indication that there was any different rule for those making less than $100,000.

    I agree on the whole that transparency's a good thing, but let's be honest that if the school had genuine privacy concerns and the only law on the question was that salaries over $100k had to be disclosed, they were perfectly right to propose disclosing only salaries of $100k-plus.

    It's not for the court to rule on questions that aren't before it and so it's generally very "fast-and-loose" to suggest one thing or another from the fact that they don't.

    Remember that they're giving out highly private information, that's personal to their employees. I think they would probably be lacking if they didn't exercise caution in doing that.

    I'm not saying the law shouldn't change, but nor should we demonize the school at present for disclosing to the extent the law requires and no further.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  10.  
    icon
    Mike Masnick (profile), Nov 19th, 2010 @ 12:13am

    Re:

    I agree on the whole that transparency's a good thing, but let's be honest that if the school had genuine privacy concerns and the only law on the question was that salaries over $100k had to be disclosed, they were perfectly right to propose disclosing only salaries of $100k-plus.

    But that's NOT what the law said. That's the point. The law is that salaries of public employees are public info.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  11.  
    icon
    pringerX (profile), Nov 19th, 2010 @ 7:38am

    Public employees

    I think that line deserves more attention.

    Salaries of public employees are public info.

    That is a good point, since employees of the government are ultimately paid from tax dollars, which... you guessed it, comes from the public. The people are effectively the owners of the corporation that is the state, so it makes sense that this information is publicly available.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  12.  
    identicon
    Michael Robertson, Nov 19th, 2010 @ 10:03am

    Re: Hard to take him seriously

    Aaron,

    I had no affiliation with any napstersucks.com site whatsoever so I think you have bad data. I have no idea who registered napstersucks.com but it definitely wasn't me or anyone that I knew or was affiliated with in any way.

    Why would I create a site to give myself an award? That would be lame. I think most awards are typically ego stroking exercises and of little value. This includes bogus honorary PhDs, names on buildings (especially those which you paid to get!), etc.

    -- MR

    www.michaelrobertson.com

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  13.  
    icon
    Michael Robertson (profile), Nov 19th, 2010 @ 10:05am

    Re: Hard to take him seriously

    Aaron,

    I had no affiliation with any napstersucks.com site whatsoever so I think you have bad data. I have no idea who registered napstersucks.com but it definitely wasn't me or anyone that I knew or was affiliated with in any way.

    Why would I create a site to give myself an award? That would be lame. I think most awards are typically ego stroking exercises and of little value. This includes bogus honorary PhDs, names on buildings (especially those which you paid to get!), etc.

    -- MR

    www.michaelrobertson.com

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  14.  
    icon
    Michael Robertson (profile), Nov 19th, 2010 @ 10:15am

    What California law is

    Andrew,

    The California public records act requires ALL documents to be provided to citizens when requested. It's not up to the government entity to decide if there's a reason to deny the request.

    Here's some quotes from a case that went all the way to the California Supreme Court:

    To the extent some public employees may expect their salaries to remain a
    private matter, that expectation is not a reasonable one and is, accordingly, entitled to diminished weight in the balancing test we apply under section 6254, subdivision.

    And this:

    We conclude that public employes do not have a reasonable expectation of privacy in the amount of their salaries.

    And finally:

    The disclosure of such information under the Act does not violate the right of privacy under the California Constitution.

    I'm not sure how it could be any more clear that a right to privacy, at least when it comes to salary information, is not a valid exception to avoid complying with a California Public Records Act. Similarly, there is nothing in the law or ruling to suggest government employees with $99,999.99 salaries are entitled to a different or greater right of privacy than someone making $100,000 per year or more.

    My belief is that citizens should know where every dollar of their money is being spent. If they don't, then it will be impossible for them to police their government.

    Those gulping tax money continue to work hard to block scrutiny. Here's a legal battle in my home town of San Diego happening right now: http://www.signonsandiego.com/news/2010/nov/19/a-need-for-pensioner-privacy/

    -- MR

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  15.  
    icon
    DNY (profile), Nov 19th, 2010 @ 8:23pm

    Transparency

    I think most public officials' idea of transparency in government is modeled on the Romulan cloaking device.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]


Add Your Comment

Have a Techdirt Account? Sign in now. Want one? Register here
Get Techdirt’s Daily Email
Save me a cookie
  • Note: A CRLF will be replaced by a break tag (<br>), all other allowable HTML will remain intact
  • Allowed HTML Tags: <b> <i> <a> <em> <br> <strong> <blockquote> <hr> <tt>
Follow Techdirt
A word from our sponsors...
Essential Reading
Techdirt Reading List
Techdirt Insider Chat
A word from our sponsors...
Recent Stories
A word from our sponsors...

Close

Email This