Let’s hear a round of applause for the journalists and advocates who rushed to the rescue when the USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service pulled inspection and enforcement data from its website last week.
On Feb. 3, APHIS removed from its website a database that once allowed users to see agency inspection reports under the Animal Welfare Act and Horse Protection Act. The reports, which were made public through the settlement of a 2005 Humane Society lawsuit against APHIS, showed whether zoos, animal research facilities and other animal-related operations were compliant with the acts.
In its blog, the Humane Society noted that it previously had used the database to levy public scrutiny on puppy mills, roadside zoos and horse sorers.
It’s not clear what caused the removal of the data, though some have speculated that President Trump’s administration may be to blame. A Washington Post report indicates it could have something to do with a lawsuit in which a violator of the acts sued the USDA for publishing his identity in the reports.
APHIS did not give the public notice before removing the reports from its website. In place of the database, the agency offers this explanation:
If the data removal was intended to be conducted quietly, the move backfired. Within days, the story was making national news headlines, prompting the outrage of animal rights activists, journalists and transparency advocates. The Humane Society immediately took legal action to make the reports public again.
And regardless of whether it was appropriate for the agency to remove data from its website during a lawsuit (and I don’t think it was), I’m impressed with the open records community’s quick response to what it clearly saw as a call to action.
Among the fast actors was Russ Kick, the open records activist who runs The Memory Hole 2, a website dedicated to obtaining government documents and releasing them to the public. On Feb. 6, in response to the APHIS database closure, The Memory Hole posted thousands of the agency’s reports, which Kick happened to download in July 2016.
“Whenever there are documents that were online, but got pulled offline, they’re automatically important,” Kick said in an interview with Motherboard. “Nobody’s going to go through the trouble to delete something that doesn’t matter.”
The Sunlight Foundation, a government transparency organization, has started a project to track the removal of data from government websites since Trump’s presidency began. And as of today, the APHIS reports are available for download from data.world as a .csv file.
For what it’s worth, I’ve filed FOIA requests for all of 2016’s APHIS inspection reports and for all White House emails received by the USDA during the time period the database was removed. I’ll post any responsive documents I get to my FOIA project page.
I also plan to send a weekly FOIA request to the agency for any inspection reports completed in the previous week. That way, even if Humane Society efforts to resurrect the database are unsuccessful, the reports will still be available to the public.