Huffpost Media
The Blog

Featuring fresh takes and real-time analysis from HuffPost's signature lineup of contributors

Alexander Howard Headshot

FTC Considers Publishing Public Data Online to Support the Future of Journalism

Posted: Updated:

The Federal Trade Commission released a discussion draft of policy recommendations to address the crisis in the newspaper industry and its relationship to the future of journalism. It's embedded below and can be downloaded as a PDF.

CUNY journalism professor Jeff Jarvis wrote on his blog that the FTC protects journalism's past.

I would argue that the FTC also provided a glimpse into one potential journalism future, founded in the release of public data online and open government principles. Jarvis, In commenting on the draft on his blog and then tweeting about it, did provide a public service by amplifying the discussion. He focused his critique of the FTC policy suggestions contained within the first 29 pages of the draft, like additional intellectual property rights to support claims against news aggregators, antitrust exemptions, new tax status, new taxes and new subsidies.

Jarvis's bottom line is that the document showed that those who drafted it for FTC had aligned the regulator with the legacy institutions of media and government. Inasmuch as the majority of digital ink spilled in the document focused on the history of journalism and the role newspapers have played as essential components of a robust participatory republic, he's right.

Jarvis wrote that the policy suggestions contained in the document does nothing to enable the entrepreneurial future of journalism, particularly the models that he and his students are defining and exploring.

If you want to give somebody tax breaks -- and I wouldn't -- give them to those who invest in innovation -- whether as disruptors from the outside or as visionaries from the inside. I certainly would not change laws to favor incumbents over those innovators. I see no reason to provide tax subsidies to support an activity that is now a hundredfold more efficient than it used to be. Rather than restricting the flow of information by making it proprietary, I'd argue that it is in the interest of democracy to make it yet freer.

I agree with Jarvis, with respect to subsidizing innovation and providing a tax structure that supports civic entrepreneurs building news startups. The development of innovative ways to spread information and ideas online has been enabled by a lack of regulatory interference and foundation of open standards and frameworks.

Where Jarvis and I disagree is in his assertion that for the FTC, "the internet is not the salvation of news, journalism, and democracy. It's the other side." If the discussion draft only consisted only of policy recommendations that endorsed subsidies, taxes and intellectual property protections designed to provide support to legacy players, he'd be spot on.

As Jarvis himself allowed, however, the final section of the draft goes further than that: "Finally, the document looks at the one thing that should be in its purview as a government agency: getting government to make its information open and accessible to view and analyze. Well, amen to that."

Others may be offering similar prayers after reading the policy recommendations contained in Section IV in the embedded document below:

New FTC Staff Discussion

In Section IV, the FTC explored what might be possible for both journalism and the republic it serves through the release of public data online. This discussion was no doubt enlightened by the voices heard during the December FTC news workshop, which I attended and blogged about in some detail. One key participant at the FTC workshop on news on March 10, however, provided insight into an even bigger canvas to paint on.

Noel Hidalgo, Director of Technology Innovation Office of the Chief Information Officer at the New York State Senate, provided the regulator with a description of how he and his colleagues overhauled the State Senate's IT infrastructure. I had the opportunity to meet Noel Hidalgo at Transparency Camp in Washington, D.C. earlier this year.

"In Code We Trust: Open Government in New Yorkwas my favorite session for the day. It was a case study in open government featuring the New York Senate, much like the one Hidalgo provided ti the FTC. With a nod to Lawrence Lessig, Noel Hidalgo, Sheldon Rampton and Mark Head showed precisely how law could be turned to code.

After poor transparency ratings, a broad swath of changes to the New York state senate websites was implemented over the past year. New York was the first state senate to adopt Creative Commons for its intellectual property.


The New York state senate is integrating open government with social media (see @NYSenate), live video, YouTube and code, at Github.com/NYSenateCIO. I saw Mark Heead, a developer, looked up a bill using the New York Senate API with an application on his smartphone. That API is behind a law browser for New York state legislation. The In Code We Trust Transparency Camp session is archived at uStream and is embedded below:

In its draft, the FTC observed the following:

Notably, the New York State Senate Office of the Chief Information Officer indicates that the template and all the software code for its overhauled web site is available to be used and leveraged by other government entities, allowing others to benefit from its effort.



Thus, it appears that at least some public-facing government websites can be launched or overhauled in under one year for an initial up-front cost of significantly less than one million dollars and, if necessary, scaled-up over time.

What might be possible if the open platform from the New York State Senate were adopted by other state legislatures around the world? Andrew Hoppin, the first Chief Information Officer the New York State Senate has had, talked with O'Reilly Media's Mac Slocum this past week about his mission to "dramatically improve government transparency, citizen participation, and operational efficiency for the Senate through technology."

Section IV of the discussion draft, in other words, will be of the considerable interest to database journalists, government IT staff and advocates for publishing public data online, particularly those that support PublicEqualsOnline.com and the POIA Act. The proposals shared by the FTC are also congruent with open government policies that the federal government was directed to implement by the president's Open Government Directive in December 2009. Specifically:

A.Proposals to Maximize Easy Accessibility of Government Information

  • Federal, state, and local government entities should maximize the amount of information online and establish the routine release of common records used to monitor the activities of government entities. Such information should be in a text-searchable format at public websites.
  • Government policies should mandate that government software be written so that personally identifiable and other non-public information can quickly and easily be extracted from any government database.
  • The federal government should liberalize and clarify eligibility for public interest fee waivers and reductions under FOIA.
  • States should adopt FOIA-type laws applicable to both the state and localities within the state, and apply the above suggestions to those laws.
  • Government entities should webcast and subsequently archive online all public government meetings, hearings, and town hall events. If webcasting is not practical or available, government entities, including courts, should archive online audio recordings of public proceedings, as well as transcripts and other related materials.
  • Currently, every state legislature and the District of Columbia provide either a live audio or video webcast of floor proceedings. However, only about 60 percent of states archive such proceedings for later review online. Similarly, only about half provide a live audio or video webcast of committee hearings and only about 40 percent archive them for later review. Thus, there appears to be significant room for improvement in this regard.

Additionally, the FTC draft discussion points to economic opportunities that the interactive data released by the SEC will provide to savvy journalist-programmers and innovative online news organizations. The Office of Interactive Disclosure at the SEC published final rules last year that require large public companies, mutual funds, and credit rating agencies to report certain information in XBRL. As the FTC's draft discussion includes, the SEC plans to expand these XBRL filing requirements to cover additional entities and data types.

According to the SEC, interactive data in SEC filings will enable investors and others to quickly identify facts and figures within lengthy disclosure documents. This capacity allows quick comparison of specific information among companies, such as past performance and industry averages. The availability of such data could help to level the playing field between large institutions, small institutions, and individual investors. The SEC hopes that as more filings include interactive data, sophisticated analysis tools now used by financial professionals could become available to the general public, making analyzing and reporting on financial data less expensive and easier.

Upcoming FTC news workshop on June 15

All constituencies will have an opportunity to comment upon this draft on June 15th in Washington, D.C., when another FTC news workshop will be held at the National Press Club.
In its press release, the FTC made the following statement:

"The list of proposals in this document is not exhaustive, and FTC staff welcomes additional proposals, as well as comments on the currently included proposals. To file comments, visit: http://public.commentworks.com/ftc/newsmediaworkshop.

The workshop is free and open to the public, but space is limited and attendees will be admitted on a first-come basis. The workshop will be held at: The National Press Club, 549 14th Street NW, 13th Floor, Washington, DC. Members of the public and press who wish to participate but who cannot attend can view a live webcast; A link will be available on the day of the workshop at: http://www.ftc.gov/opp/workshops/news/index.shtml.

The Fourth Estate is an essential counterbalance to the inevitable expression of the weaknesses in human nature when we are given great power in society. It's no accident that freedom of the press is enshrined within the First Amendment of the Bill of Rights. Free, open reporting on the actions of the government is a fundamental element of the endurance of the United States over more than two centuries of constitutional democracy.

Ensuring that critical role the press has played in our history endures, however, is no longer only dependent upon newspapers. The same disruptive effect that the Internet had on the newspaper industry at the end of the 20th Century could be a sustaining force as humanity moves forward into the 21st Century.

The support for the free and open release of public information online that the FTC included in its draft could help to bring such change and, with innovative, smart use government data, enable a new ecosystems of journalism that provides civic good.