By: Laura Saini
Since President Trump took office, experts believe his administration began an alarming practice: removing records from government websites. One area of deletions that received a lot of coverage is climate change data. The new administration deleted all mentions of climate change from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) website and deleted multiple reports from the State Department website.
Another instance of deletions less known is animal welfare data. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), a government agency responsible for laws regarding agriculture and food, deleted records about animal treatment in various facilities.
The USDA removed thousands of inspection reports in February that detailed animal abuses in zoos, research laboratories, circuses, commercial breeders, etc. Some of these deleted records showed violations of the Animal Welfare Act and the Horse Protection Act (HPA), which regulates the treatment of animals in various facilities.
“Unfortunately, it just seems to be part of a larger atmospheric change within this administration in terms of information availability,” said Nancy Blaney, director of governmental affairs at Animal Welfare Institute, an animal protection organization. “They [the government] had been doing a good job up to that point.”
Blaney says the records help Animal Welfare Institute see the history of violations, how quickly the violations are addressed, and how aggressive the USDA is in enforcing the law.
According to an Animal Welfare Institute press release, the USDA deleted the data because of a lawsuit by the horse industry. In Contender Farms vs. USDA, a horse industry sued over the USDA’s ability to enforce violations of the Horse Protection Act. One main violation is soring.
Soring means applying chemicals, like kerosene, to a horse’s lower leg and covering it with plastic wrap for several days, allowing the chemicals to settle. Soring causes an exaggerated step. This is beneficial in horse show competitions, like the Tennessee Walking Horse Celebration.
Contender farms argued that listing the Horse Protection Act violations in the USDA website violates privacy rights because it lists personal information in the reports.
According to a statement by the USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, which posts the records, it removed the records in the interest of transparency. It wants to remove personal information, like names and addresses, from the records.
“The irony can’t have been lost on anybody that in the same breath as they’re saying that we’re taking all this stuff down, they’re saying that it’s in the interest of transparency,” Blaney said. “There’s some 1984 speak for you.”
The statement from the USDA says that to access the data, the public can file requests under the Freedom of Information Act, a law that allows the public to request information from the federal government. However, FOIA requests can be a difficult process.
“There’s a natural kind of inertia that sets in with government agencies-at all levels- where they don’t necessarily want to give records to the public that they’re required to,” said David Snyder, executive director of First Amendment Coalition, a nonprofit organization that advances free speech and a more open government.
According to the FOIA website, a simple FOIA request to the USDA could take anywhere between one day to about two years in 2016. A complex request could take anywhere between one day to almost four years.
“It takes work to dig records up and produce them,” Snyder said. “There are good agencies that do their best to comply with requests, but there are also plenty that are bad that don’t comply with the rules.”
After push back from animal-rights organizations, the USDA reposted inspection reports that were deleted. It also reposted annual reports about research facilities. However, not all the deleted records were put back. The USDA says in a statement that it’s reviewing reports and “determining which information is appropriate for reposting.”
“It remains to be seen what happens going forward, in terms of getting all these materials up, getting the new stuff up,” Blaney said.
In addition to deleting the animal-welfare records, The Trump administration has been changing and deleting climate change information. This reflects the new administration anti-climate change policy.
Environmental Data and Governance Initiative (EDGI), an international network of academics and nonprofits that deal with environmental and energy policy, performs website tracking analyses that record changes in government websites. In recent reports, it noted that the government removed sentences that posits renewable energy as a replacement for fossil fuels. The government websites also emphasize job creations, and it deletes mentions of greenhouse gases.
For example, on the Bioenergy Technology Office website, the sentence “the reduction in petroleum imports and increase in domestic renewable biomass use will help keep jobs in this country,” was deleted, according to EDGI. The report says it framed the oil industry in a negative light.
However, sentences like “the potential production could, in turn, directly generate $30 billion in revenue and 1.1 million jobs in a variety of sectors…” were added, emphasizing the new administration’s job-creation policies.
“Our goal is to begin to document what kinds of changes are made over time to these government websites,” said Liz Williams, a website tracking analyst at EDGI. “What kind of information there is, what kinds of accessibility there is over time. We’re really hoping to set the precedence that these activities will continue indefinitely so that people could really start to understand how information flow changes over time.”
While the deletion of data is a concern for the scientific community, there are even more potential restrictions on the horizon.
The Honest Act, a bill that was passed by the Republican-controlled House of Representatives, could change the how the EPA makes regulations. If this bill is passed through the Senate, the EPA would be required to use the “best science.” This means the bill would bar the EPA from considering scientific studies that cannot be reproduced. It would also bar any study that uses confidential information, such as medical records.
If the EPA can’t consider these scientific studies because it is not the “best science,” it may become difficult to make regulations. The EPA could no longer use these previously accredited studies.
According to a letter written by EDGI, studies like the hazards of lead paint on children and the effects of radioactive contaminants in the water are difficult to reproduce. They are longitudinal studies-meaning they follow individuals for years to track how they are affected. If the EPA cannot use these studies, it becomes extremely difficult to make more regulations about water or lead paint.
“The issue is the data are still there,” Williams said. “If they can’t include all the data that were out there, then that creates questions about whether they were using the best information. It would affect the average person on the street in terms of whether the EPA could put regulations they feel are appropriate.”
EDGI not only keeps track of website changes, it also conducts data-rescue missions. The recuse missions join scientists, librarians, coders and other volunteers to preserve data sets that are at risk of being deleted.
Essentially, people gather together and select data that seem at risk of deletion. Then, they store the data in an online archive that is easily accessible to the public.
Maya Anjur-Dietrich, who helps archive, train and organize DataRescue events, says with the success of these missions, now EDGI is moving from rescuing data to figuring out how to engage the public with data.
“I think a really important thing is that knowledge is losing its place in society with the mirage of information you can get,” Dietrich said. “So understanding what the value of information is a really important long-term goal.”
Another person who is actively saving at-risk information is Russ Kick. He stores records and information in his website, The Memory Hole 2. He says his initial intent when he created the first site, Memory Hole, was to create an internet archive of important documents.
“When I come across certain documents online, I think it’s weird that it’s available,” Kick said. “For one reason or another, it usually gives this visually detailed information about what the agency is doing. I’m really surprised to see it up here.”
Kick says he files FOIA requests for reports frequently, along with internal memos and emails. He wants to look at the process of what goes on at the agencies, he says.
“It helps to try and get into the mindset of government officials,” he said. “A lot of it is just thinking like them.”
Some recent posts Kick made were: a list of deleted materials about Trump, and video and audio from the recent United Airlines incident, where a man was dragged out of an overbooked flight kicking and screaming.
“A lot of the time I keep looking at the news, and I think what documents are generated based on this story,” Kick said.
While the concept of deleting information from government seems problematic, there are some types of data deletions that are routine. For example, new presidents typically change the White House website to accommodate their own policies. The old websites are then archived online. Obama also archived his predecessor’s website.
Although the Trump administration is facing backlash for transparency issues, the Obama administration also had its own problems. When Obama first took office, he promised to be the most transparent presidency to date. However, many believe he did not live up to his promise.
According to ProPublica, Obama prosecuted more leakers than all previous presidents combined. In his two terms as president, the Obama Justice Department held eight Espionage Act prosecutions, which accuses individuals for treason. The government charged journalists for leaking confidential information to the public.
He also did not disclose the casualties of the drone program. According to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, Obama used drone strikes to kill enemies abroad ten times more than President Bush. Obama did not want to release how many civilians were killed during these strikes.
“The signal that the Trump administration is sending suggests that he’s not going to be better than Obama in transparency, and Obama was frankly not great on the transparency front,” Snyder said.
The Obama administration did face transparency issues: it heavily prosecuted leakers and did not release civilian deaths in drone strikes. However, the Obama administration differs from the Trump administration. Under Trump, government agencies are deleting information previously available in websites.
One example demonstrates the difference between the two presidents. The White House recently announced it would take down open.gov, a website created during Obama’s presidency that provided white house visitor records, along with the salaries, appointments, and financial disclosures of the staff.
Obama originally did not disclose this information, but after push back he publicized the White House visitor log. However, despite public push back, the Trump administration will still remove White House visitor records.
“At least from a public-relations standpoint, it seems to be a bad move,” Snyder said. “To take information away from the internet, where everybody accesses information now, especially when that information was already there previously.”
Animal welfare records and climate change data are just two parts of a larger trend of transparency concerns the Trump administration faces.
“To suggest that to get this information you have to go through this torturous FOIA process, is just ridiculous,” Blaney said. “It’s certainly not in keeping with transparency.”