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Monday, March 7, 2011

Utah Just Made Government Across the U.S. a Little More Closed

I don't get political on this blog very often (honestly, I hate politics), but when I do you can know either 1) it's technology related, or 2) it's important to me.  This one is both of those. The issue is related to Utah's House Bill 0477 (please read the whole thing if you get a chance), a bill which intends to make it harder for media outlets to request private communications between government officials, in order to save the costs of processing such requests.

The bill's main intent, according to the "Senate Site" (a site sponsored by the Utah State Senate Majority), is to stop "Fishing Expeditions", which are supposedly burdening State Senators and House Representatives and costing the State money with requests through the Government Records Access and Management Act, a Freedom of Information Act equivalent for Utah. It would seem like a legitimate cause at the front, but there are some serious concerns. Here are my personal concerns with the bill:


  1. The Bill was passed in 2 days. The bill was rumored to have been thrown around just a week before according to Utah Governor Gary Herbert, and was submitted just 48 hours before it hit the Utah House floor. In just 2 hours it was passed in the House with a 61-12 vote for the bill and swept through the Senate with a 21-7 vote for the bill, and will be signed into Law by the Governor on Monday. Not to mention the fact that it was passed on a Friday, with no opportunity for representatives or Senators to hear complaints from citizens over the weekend.

    Besides the fact that it passed so quickly and the fact that many representatives admitted they didn't even have time to read it (and still voted for it), the lack of Due Process on this bill is simply unconstitutional! The 14th Amendment to the US Constitution states, "nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law." I haven't seen any record of anyone bringing this up during the session, wich to me is just dumbfounding! Here we have a bill which gives citizens more liberties into keeping checks on their government, and a bill which claims to remove some of those liberties comes into effect with just 2 days notice to debate! Where's the due process here? Something's fishy here - someone's not telling the whole truth here and trying to get past an annoyance at the expense of the US Constitution. That's plain wrong (not to mention illegal and costly)
  2. The bill has major flaws! Supposedly 2 hours were spent on Friday morning with "Media lawyers", but no thought was put into the technology wording put into the bill. For instance, section 24b-D of the bill states, when suggesting what records may be requested:

    "'Record' does not mean:...(D) a text message, or similar text-based document, other than an email, that is electronically exchanged by means of a phone number;"

    This, according to the Senate Site, is intended to just bring GRAMA into a more modern light, but making it harder to access text messages between government officials. Let's assume that's even okay (which I think is still very wrong). Never mind the fact that SMS and Text messages aren't even sent by means of phone numbers any more (they are mostly sent through IP addresses and similar protocols), but we'll assume they are.  "Electronically exchanged by means of a phone number" - hmm...that opens up a whole broad range of possibilities as to what might remain private. For instance, what if someone sends a private direct message to Twitter or Facebook over SMS? Those too are banned according to this wording. Or what about an iPad that sends its signals over a 3G connection? 3G also relies on a phone number to communicate. This means officials could just use their iPad 3Gs and be completely protected by this legislation.

    Lastly, the text messaging clause, unlike the other electronic communication clauses in the bill, has no restrictions to it. In regards to voice mails, the bill adds the disclaimer, "unless the video chat or transmission is an electronic meeting as governed by Section 52-4-207." Other parts add the disclaimer of access to the record being forbidden if it's for the Government Official's own use, or items that are "unrelated to an official's government duties." Not so for the Text Messaging clause - there are no disclaimers, making all text communication electronically exchanged by use of a phone number off-limits for citizens to access. This should raise a big red flag!
  3. It's an embarrassment for Utah! People with National and International audiences are already talking about this (like Robert Scoble). With the affect it has already on the media (don't get me wrong - this affects citizens even more than it does media, regardless of what the "Senate Site" tells you. Citizens are the media now, don't forget.) it is bound to get in the national spotlight. Utah will be made out, just like the Feral Cat bill, to be wackos. I can't stand for that.
  4. It will end up costing us more than the problem it's supposed to fix. Think we spend a lot of time and money on legal bills now to process GRAMA requests? Wait until we get sued because the bill is unconstitutional. We'll be spending even more.
  5. Finally, I have many other concerns, but most of all this Bill isn't needed to resolve government's concerns! With technology and a willingness to be more open, government can still protect the privacy of citizens while opening up what government is doing in an official capacity, with no human intervention like they are having to do now. I'll explain this in a post tomorrow, but simply put, wrap a little RSS feed around our officials' communications and you don't need GRAMA in the first place. I'll be proposing a solution on this shortly.
Everything about this bill is wrong. I fear that even if Utah's Governor doesn't sign this bill into law tomorrow morning that it will still get overridden due to the overwhelming majority, and as a result we're going to spend millions in trying to defend this in court, defeating its supposed purpose in the first place.

If you're in another state, don't think this doesn't affect you either. By Utah passing this bill, this sets precedence for other States to pass similar measures. It makes it possible to pass such controversial bills in similar time frames. It takes away a little transparency from all of our State Governments. We all need to be standing up for this bill and protesting it. This is a bill that affects every one of our freedoms - everything about it is wrong!

I've created a Facebook Page for this here. I ask, no matter where you are, that you like it and share it with your friends. Please, in or out of Utah, blog about it, write about it, share it with your friends. I'm donating $100 of my own money towards advertising for this effort. We need to stand up for these types of bills and ensure they don't permeate our society. What will you do?

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