FREEDOM FIGHTERS: A threat from the federal government helped turn the lonely crusade of MuckRock’s Mitchell Kotler (left) and Michael Morisy into a new-media cause célèbre.
Michael Morisy and Mitchell Kotler started their Web site, muckrock.com, as a hobby, and they set out to do something woefully esoteric. The former Cornell roommates focused on one of the most tedious journalistic procedures: filing requests, under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), for the government to release documents to the public.
Five months into what they thought would be a lonely crusade to help the Fourth Estate wade through oceans of red tape, the pair stumbled onto a reporter's wet dream: a threat from federal officials, via Governor Deval Patrick's office, that they'd be jailed for publishing government documents. Coming just months after WikiLeaks' Julian Assange sparked an international furor, the incident made headlines, turned the duo into instant First Amendment rock stars — and raised yet another set of sticky questions about civic media in the digital age.
In theory, filing FOIAs ought to be simple. In practice, it's often a nightmare — enough of a ball-buster to boggle many professionals, let alone civilians. MuckRock was designed as a part-human, part-technical solution. The programming end makes it easier for bloggers, journalists, and inquisitive citizens to file FOIA requests. On the human end, the men behind MuckRock actually submit the inquiry by snail or e-mail, and keep tabs on whether agencies followed the law and released the information. If and when the documents are released, they warehouse the data in a way that makes it easy to search.
Unlike WikiLeaks, which has released hundreds of thousands of stolen, classified documents, MuckRock aims to publish only publicly available information obtained by legal means. So when Morisy wanted figures on food-stamp spending in Massachusetts, he used MuckRock to submit a request to the state's Department of Transitional Assistance. The state, in turn, complied and sent MuckRock the data. There was just one problem: the commonwealth didn't have the authority to release those records. The state sent a letter threatening Morisy with "fines or imprisonment" if he didn't remove the documents from his site. (So far, Morisy has declined to remove the documents.)
And with that, MuckRock found itself smack in the middle of an ongoing debate over how new media and open-records initiatives are challenging long-held assumptions about how the government deals with "public" information. The Boston Globe and the Boston Herald — both of whom had ignored overtures from Morisy to employ and analyze the documents — ran multiple stories, with the Globe even championing MuckRock in an op-ed. In their coverage, the papers also relayed some of the information that had been illegally leaked to MuckRock — thereby becoming, in a sense, willing accomplices.
At the time the story broke, the Phoenix was informally talking to MuckRock about partnering on future features. So it was with a sense of bemusement, and also alarm, that we watched how the media characterized the efforts of two dudes who've been hanging around Boston's news-and-innovation scene, looking for a break. This wasn't exactly what they had in mind.