Help protect geolocation privacy with Texas HB1608

TxEPC Action!TxEPC Action!

This Thursday May 9th, the Texas House of Representatives votes on HB1608 to determine whether our state will respect the privacy of your mobile phone geolocation data. Mobile phones are designed to track everywhere they go, and we think law enforcement should have to demonstrate probable cause to a judge before gaining access to such intimate information about one’s whereabouts, associations, and activities.

EFF-Austin, as a founding member of the Texas Electronic Privacy Coalition, has been helping shepherd this legislation forward from its inception. This is a crucial moment in the bill’s progress, and we need you to help remind our State Representatives that they should vote YES on HB1608.

Here’s an online petition to do just that. This will send an email to your state Rep letting them know that you want them to support HB1608. It takes just a few minutes to help ensure the privacy of Texans’ geolocation data.

Thursday is the LAST day for bills to receive a House floor vote for the next two years. We’ll be sitting in the public gallery to observe the show – which could get pretty interesting given the nature of the bill! If you’re interested in joining us, or helping pass out flyers to legislators before the vote, sign up on our volunteer page and we’ll be in touch.

Please send your petition here then let your fellow Texans know! And thank you for your time.

Participating in Public Hearings of Committees of the Texas House of Representatives

"Freedom of Speech" by Norman Rockwell (1943) “Freedom of Speech” by Norman Rockwell (1943)

One of the most important moments in a piece of legislation’s lifecycle is its public hearing. This is the opportunity for a bill to be formally considered by its assigned committee, and a decision made as to whether the bill will be reported out of committee to the full legislative body favorably, unfavorably, or deferred for additional consideration.

As defined in “Texas House Rules: 83rd Legislature, 2013”, meetings of committees may include:

a public hearing where testimony is to be heard, and where official action may be taken, on bills, resolutions, or other matters;

After a bill is filed and referred to a particular committee, the committee Chair, in consultation with other committee members and the bill author, decides when to schedule the bill’s public hearing. As committees must consider many bills during each legislative session, Texas House committees generally hold public hearings on a weekly basis.

Public Hearings are PUBLIC

As the name indicates, public hearings are open to the public. Texas House Rule 4, Section 12 states:

All meetings of a committee or subcommittee, including a calendars committee, shall be open to other members, the press, and the public unless specifically provided otherwise by resolution adopted by the house.

This means you can show up to observe and report on the proceedings of your elected officials. There is an open wireless network available throughout the Capitol Complex called Public-Capitol should you want to broadcast your observations:
http://www.legis.state.tx.us/resources/wireless.aspx

You Can Be a Witness

Citizenship grants you the right to participate more actively in committee public hearings by becoming a witness. You and organizations you are empowered to represent have three options for participating and making your voice heard in relation to any particular bill heard by a committee:

  1. Show up and register your position as “For”, “Against”, or “Neutral” in relation to a bill
  2. Show up, register your position, and file written comments which are attached to the meeting minutes
  3. Show up, register your position, and testify before the committee

Showing Up and Registering Your Position

Each of these options for participating in committee public hearings requires your physical presence, even if you are just registering your position. Traditionally, registration has entailed filling out a paper card (stacked near the entrance to the committee public hearing room) and delivering the card to the committee clerk (typically seated in the front of the room below the committee members). Recently, the Legislature has taken steps to allegedly make this process a little easier by installing iPad kiosks in the Capitol Complex to enable witness registration. You can also use your own iPad to connect to the House Witness Registration system from within the Capitol Complex, and register without having to locate a kiosk.

Here are the details on registering as a witness for a House Committee hearing:
https://www.mytxlegis.legis.state.tx.us/HWRSPublic/About.aspx

You can setup a witness profile in advance. This will save you time so you don’t need to enter your personal information more than once. Here is a video on using the House Witness Registration system:
https://www.mytxlegis.legis.state.tx.us/HWRSPublic/Video/HouseWitnessReg.mp4

The video shows that you can register your position as “For” a bill, “Against” it, or “Neutral”. The “Neutral” position can be important if you are testifying on behalf of an organization that cannot perform political lobbying, as you can still present information to inform committee members. Texas House Rule 4, Section 10’s Explanatory Notes state:

Many times, persons representing an association or executive branch agency will appear before a committee to testify “on” a particular measure. Such persons often refer to themselves as “resource witnesses” because they are not taking a position for or against the measure.

Filing Written Comments

In addition to registering your or your organization’s position on a bill, you may also file written comments. Texas House Rule 4, Section 20(c) states:

Sworn statements submitted in paper format for those persons recognized by the chair to address the committee shall accompany the copy of the minutes of the meeting filed with the committee coordinator.

Comments submitted along with your sworn statement become part of your statement. Keep your comments concise, generally no more than a paragraph or a page. Make copies for each of the committee members and the committee clerk (and for others, including the press, who might be amenable to learning about your position). Once you’ve filled out the witness registration card, hand the committee clerk your comments along with your sworn statement on paper. Please note the emphasis on paper here: you cannot submit comments electronically which leaves an open question as to whether one can use the online House Witness Registration system when intending to file written comments.

Testifying

You can also register to provide spoken testimony at a committee public hearing. When a bill is presented before the committee, witnesses who have asked to speak are called (generally in the order in which they registered) to present their testimony for three minutes each (longer depending on the mood of the committee). Committee members then have an opportunity to ask you questions. Providing spoken testimony can be powerful – or it can unintentionally undermine your efforts. Jon Roland has put together a good summary of points to consider when forming and delivering testimony.
http://obitur-dictum.blogspot.com/2012/08/testifying-to-texas-legislature.html

Remote and Video Testimony

In certain circumstances, witnesses do NOT have to be physically present at a public hearing to provide testimony. Rule 4, Section 20(g) states:

The chair may recognize a witness who has been invited by the committee to attend the meeting but is not present in the same physical location as the committee to testify before the committee through an Internet or other videoconferencing system…

In this circumstance, it sounds like the committee itself would need to invite a remote witness.

Rule 4, Section 20A provides for “Video Testimony”:

The committee coordinator shall…establish procedures to permit a person to submit testimony relating to measures under consideration by a committee to the committee in the form of an online video. The procedures established must ensure that testimony submitted in the form of a video is available to the public on the Internet. Online video testimony submitted to the committee may not exceed three minutes.

Recordings of Public Hearings

House Video/Audio Services are tasked with providing live web-casts and broadcasts of committee and subcommittee meetings, but cannot do so for all public hearings. So you may be able to watch committee public hearings online. Here is the House Weekly Broadcast Schedule:
http://www.house.state.tx.us/video-audio/broadcast-schedule/

You can find the House video archive here:
http://www.house.state.tx.us/video-audio/

Furthermore, audio recordings are generated at every public hearing and are subsequently available for review with a little wrangling:

All House committee clerks are responsible for recording audio of every public hearing. You may listen to these recordings in CD or cassette format in the House Communications, Video/Audio Services office, located in the John H. Reagan Building at 105 West 15th Street, Room 330, Austin, TX. (Just North of the State Capitol) Copies of the audio recordings may be purchased for a fee. For more information, call (512) 463-0920. You may send your signed Open Records Request letter via fax at (512) 463-5729 or mail to the Texas House of Representatives, c/o Video/Audio Services, P. O. Box 2910, Austin, TX 78701.

Make Your Voice Heard

Your options for participating in public hearings of committees of the Texas House of Representatives before, during, and after the fact are substantial. Prepare in advance and make sure you know these important pieces of information before you arrive at the Capitol Complex:

  1. The bill number you are interested in
  2. Which committee the bill is referred to
  3. The date, time and location of the public hearing

Good luck! Make your perspectives and opinions known.

Crowdsource PACER liberation in tribute to Aaron Swartz

United States Courts logo

In late January, Aaron Greenspan announced “Operation Asymptote” to the influential Liberation Technologies mailing list:

In case anyone is interested, I’ve built a tool to crowdsource the downloading of PACER materials. You can find details here:
http://www.aarongreenspan.com/writing/essay.html?id=85
http://www.plainsite.org/asymptote/index.html

I looked into Operation Asymptote, and recommend it as an effective and poetic tribute to Aaron Swartz‘s memory. Here’s some background on how it works.

“PACER” stands for Public Access to Court Electronic Records. It’s a network of servers hosting case and docket information from federal district, bankruptcy, and appellate courts.

As far as open government history is concerned, PACER was ahead of its time, initially providing terminal access in libraries and office buildings as early as 1988, then moving to the web in 2001.

Its network architecture and system design have not kept pace with the times. Neither has its fee structure, which was increased to $0.10 per page in September 2011. Charges are even applied to search results, where a page is defined as 4,320 bytes. I suppose one could argue it makes sense that the Administrative Office of the United States Courts should charge a nominal fee for documents which are in the public domain if you consider the cost of running and securing the service, maybe even upgrading it now and then. But that’s not what the fees are exclusively used for. In fact, PACER makes a sizable profit and some of those funds are used in a slushy way by the U.S. Courts, enabling at least one court to purchase flat screen LCDs and audio speakers installed in court benches.

What other options are out there for accessing federal case law? Open government pioneer Carl Malamud says commercial ventures such as Lexis-Nexis, West Law, and Bloomberg Law compete for a $6.5 billion market built around extracting rents from this public commons:

Countless government lawyers, public interest lawyers, and solo practitioners are quick to point out that they are priced out of the market and cannot afford access to the tools they need for their job. For the rest of us, the law truly has been locked up behind a cash register, affordable only to those who can pay the enormous price. We are a nation of laws, but the laws are not publicly available. This is a fundamental issue for democracy, for if we are a nation of laws, we must be able to consult the cases and codes of our government.

This brings to mind something important Jacob Appelbaum said the other day:

The old phrase “Ignorance of the law is no excuse” really rings hollow in an era of secret law.

The PACER system excludes a segment of the public as well as law practitioners who cannot afford access to the case law, which enforces its own form of ignorance. When Aaron Swartz met Steve Schultze in 2008 and learned about the PACER system, it seems he recognized an injustice and decided to do something about it. And as seems emblematic of what I have learned of Aaron Swartz’s ways, he outsmarted an institution with the assistance of technology. Here’s Steve Schultze’s description of meeting Aaron Swartz, the idea for a “Thumb Drive Corps” to liberate PACER documents from 16 public libraries temporarily granted free access, and Aaron Swartz’s automation of that process so he could download 2.7 million files in two days.

Steve’s post also describes the provenance of the technology underlying Aaron Greenspan’s proposed Operation Asymptote, the RECAP Firefox plugin.

I called up one of the authors [of the paper “Government Data and the Invisible Hand”], Ed Felten, and he told me to come down to Princeton to give a talk about PACER. Afterwards, two graduate students, Harlan Yu and Tim Lee, came up to me and made an interesting suggestion. They proposed a Firefox extension that anyone using PACER could install. As users paid for documents, those documents would automatically be uploaded to a public archive. As users browsed dockets, if any documents were available for free, the system would notify them of that, so that the users could avoid charges. It was a beautiful quid-pro-quo, and a way to crowdsource the PACER liberation effort in a way that would build on the existing document set.

As a result, we have the RECAP collection at The Internet Archive which as of this writing consists of 851,083 items.

Here’s the RECAP website where you can install the plugin, or browse the archive.

And here’s the next piece of the puzzle:

The Judicial Conference of the United States approved a measure in March 2010 stating that you will not owe a [PACER] fee unless your account accrues more than $10.00 of usage in a given quarter. In September 2011, this amount was increased to $15.00. If you accrue less than $15.00, your fees are waived for that quarter and your billing statement will have a zero balance. This policy change will be effective for the July 2012 statement.

So that means that any individual using PACER can download 150 pages every quarter for free. If you use the RECAP plugin while you are doing it, those pages are automatically uploaded to the Internet Archive where they become true public records without having to do anything except click on a link. Here’s the PACER registration page, where you will need a credit card to set up an account but don’t necessarily have to be charged fees.

Don’t know what to download? That’s where Aaron Greenspan’s Operation Asymptote and his public access law website PlainSite can help. As he explains in his post announcing the project, Aaron Greenspan wanted to find out all about Assistant United States Attorney Stephen P. Heymann, who played a role in prosecuting Aaron Swartz’s case. And he did. Here’s all of Heymann’s cases.

Now he wants to make “every U.S. Attorney and [Assistant U.S. Attorney]’s full career as a prosecutor available to the public to examine in its entirety.” So those are the links queued up in Operation Asymptote. Register with PACER, start Firefox w/ RECAP installed, navigate to the Operation Asymptote site, and begin clicking links till you reach $15 in charges, which you won’t be charged for.
http://www.plainsite.org/asymptote/index.html

That’s what you might call poetic justice.