GovTrack’s Modest Proposal

Josh Tauberer is the proprietor of one of the finest open government tools available: GovTrack. It’s a database that includes information on every current and former member of Congress, every roll call vote in history, and every bill since 1973. It’s pretty handy, and GovTrack has done a fantastic job making all that information easily accessible to citizens through the website, and to developers through their API. A lot of people rely on that API. It’s used in dozens of other open government projects. I don’t think I’m exaggerating to say that GovTrack is a foundation of open government.

It became foundational because of the quality of the tool and the permissiveness of the licensing, which more or less puts GovTrack in the public domain. So last night, Josh posts this to the govtrack blog:

This is advanced notice that on July 20 I’ll be revising the terms of GovTrack’s generic license agreement by adding the following paragraph:

* During the time in which your organization is reusing GovTrack’s database, your website must block visitors referred by the websites of sponsors of the Netroots Nation conference. If you make the data available in bulk to others, your license agreement must carry over the same terms.

In techPresident today, Netroots Nation’s executive director Raven Brooks encouraged progressive advocacy groups to boycott NationBuilder, a non-partisan technology platform that helps campaigns build their websites, because NationBuilder sells services to right-leaning organizations. There’s a complicated history here that’s touched on in the techPresident article (http://techpresident.com/news/22556/nationbuilders-mammoth-deal-state-level-republican-committee-sparks-calls-boycott), but Brooks’s point seems to boil down to a belief that there can be no nonpartisan political tools.

GovTrack, and most tools that reuse its database, is a nonpartisan tool that has played an important role in political activism over the last several years on both sides of the political aisle. It is astonishing to me that anyone would think that technology infrastructure should choose sides. Especially since it appears that the sponsors of past Netroots Nations conferences have been users of nonpartisan political technology platforms like GovTrack. If they are going to boycott tools like GovTrack, they certainly won’t notice the change to GovTrack’s license terms.

Your feedback on these changes is welcome, especially if the feedback is in the style of satire. But this isn’t a joke. Ridiculous boycotts of technology startups require ridiculous responses.

I know a Modest Proposal when I see one.

Josh is going ad absurdum on Brooks’ position. I understand why he might be moved to do this, but Brooks is free to engage in whatever tedious, intramural fight he likes. It’s all inside baseball to most of us, and if that’s what gets Brooks out of bed in the morning, fine. It’s immaterial to the rest of us in the community, who are just trying to get work done.

That’s why the satire fails, and why I’m humorless about it. GovTrack has always been a nonpartisan tool. Brooks’ boycott is decidedly partisan, which means it’s a petty playground brawl that only hurts the two children involved. GovTrack’s licensing change, on the other hand, would have serious unintended consequences for the ecosystem of open government tools. So when I see GovTrack threatening to change licensing because of some ridiculous fight between two groups I have no interest in, I’m not moved to blame Brooks.

What I’m not sure Josh appreciates is just how important trust is to an open platform. He has earned our trust through his extraordinary work, and so we rely on GovTrack being available under predictably, reliably permissive terms. Businesses and non-profits are built on it. Capriciously altering those terms, even in jest, drags us all into a fight which most of us couldn’t care less about. In a community that’s built on collaboration and a complex web of trust between people, platforms, and APIs, that has grave consequences.

The good news is that GovTrack’s current licensing permits anyone so moved to copy GovTrack and maintain their own version. That’s one of the benefits of open licensing. If I were an organization that relies heavily on GovTrack, like the Sunlight Foundation, I’d be giving that some serious thought.