In regards to my previous post about my FOIA being denied, I have decided to dig into the law and learn some of the nitty-gritty details of what is going on here. So my purpose here is to learn and understand more about the law under which we operate.
Here is the meat of the denial I am going to focus on (I am purposefully ignoring the section about Student Records and Personally Identifiable information):
“In addition, such documents are also exempt from disclosure since they are trade secrets or commercial information obtained from a person or business where the trade secrets or commercial information are furnished under a claim that they are proprietary, privileged, or confidential, and disclosure of the trade secrets or commercial information would cause competitive harm to the person or business. 5 ILCS 140/7(1)(g). In addition, such documents are exempt from disclosure under the FOIA since they constitute valuable formulae and research data obtained or produced by any public body when disclosure could reasonably be expected to produce private gain or public loss. 5 ILCS 140/7(1)(i).”
So we are dealing with two exemptions under FOIA law (5 ILCS 140/7(1)), ‘g’ and ‘i’. Before I hop over there, read the summary here carefully. Basically, Unit 4 is claiming that the school assignment data is proprietary (or privileged or confidential) trade secrets, and that they have valuable formulae which, if everyone knew about it, might be used for commercial gain. The way I read that is like “Intellectual property rights”, although I am no lawyer and I have no idea if that is even in the same ballpark, but that is what it makes me think of. So let’s go look at the what the reference Law says.
And here is what the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press has to say regarding the exemptions:
So first, either Unit 4 or someone whom Unit 4 is representing (ie, not a parent or a student) claims that the data is proprietary and the disclosure of such “could reasonably be expected to produce private gain or public loss”. What exactly is “public loss”? The way I read this is that the Alves Educational Consultant Group (AECG) is asserting that the various point codes buried within the spreadsheet could be used by someone else to do the same job. Hmm… oh, noes, stop the press!! We are talking about assigning children to schools. So let me get this straight – the formula used to calculate which school each child goes to is secret and if more people knew about it, they could write a program and profit?
If this is indeed true, then I have a huge problem with this. First, there should never ever be a “secret” formula that they public is not aware of when the public pays tax dollars to send kids to school. The formula should be clearly spelled out in the board policies, and the software should merely implement what the policy says.
So back to what the law says. It seems the purpose of the exemptions quoted are to protect private business that have contracts with public bodies. That makes a lot of sense. I don’t see Microsoft releasing code just because they deal with schools. I don’t see Oracle releasing trade secrets just because they have business deals with government. It is interesting that there is a special exemption to the exemption (a double negative?) for “computer geographic information.” I am assuming they are referring to geocodes and GIS. It seems that GIS information is covered under FOIA when the media requests it for the purpose of vague things like “health, safety, welfare, or legal rights of the general public”. Also, there is an entire paragraph in (g) giving an example of how it applies to pension or private equity funds.
Anyway, if there was a concern about reverse-engineering some “secret” formula, I already have enough data for that. Given that I have had that data for 3 years, is there still a reasonable expectation that I might privately gain from it?