“My position has always been that a tool is a tool. Whether a tool is used for good or evil is the responsibility of the one who uses the tool.”
Lawyers have historically advised that metadata be fiercely protected. Jembaa Cole, in the Shidler Journal for Law, Commerce and Technology wrote, “There have been several instances in which seemingly innocuous metadata has wreaked professional and political havoc.”
Cole goes on to cite a gaffe from Tony Blair’s administration - a document about weapons of mass destruction was available on the government’s web site, which claimed the information was original and current. Metadata showed that, not only had the information been plagiarized from a student thesis, it was more than ten years old.
Cole urges lawyers to take an aggressive tack against revealing metadata, by educating offices about its existence, making a practice of “scrubbing” it from documents, and providing “clean” documents in PDF or paper form.
The city attorney’s office has taken a similar stance. Spokesperson Matt Dorsey told us metadata has been a part of the continuing education of the city attorney’s office. However, all past case law of which they are aware focuses on metadata in the context of discovery and “the conclusion of most state bars is that they have the obligation, under attorney-client privilege, to review metadata prior to discovery,” he said. “The issue of metadata is a relatively new one in legal circuits. It isn’t a brand new issue to us, but it is in the context of Sunshine,” said Dorsey, who maintains that metadata could still fall within the standard redaction policies of the public records act.
Terry Franke, who runs the open-government group Californian Aware, argues that “the city attorney needs to complete this sentence: ‘Allowing the public to see metadata in Word documents would be a detriment because…’ What?”
“From the beginning of this discussion the city attorney has never provided a plausible, practical, understandable explanation of what is the kind and degree of harm in allowing metadata to be examined that justifies stripping it out,” Francke said.
To the task force
When Grossman and Crossman were denied the documents as they’d requested them, they filed complaints with the Sunshine Ordinance Task Force. In their cases, first heard on Sep. 26, they argued there should be no concern that the text of Word documents could be manipulated - anybody with a gluestick and a pair of scissors could do that to any piece of paper. That had been a consideration when the Sunshine Ordinance was drafted, and why the city always retains the undisputable original.
Thomas Newton, of the California Newspapers and Publishers Alliance, who was involved in drafting the state’s public records law, agreed with them. “If you follow his logic, you can’t release a copy of any public record because, oh my God, someone might change it,” Newton told us.
Crossman and Grossman also pointed out that to convert documents from Word to PDF invites even more work to a task that should be as burden-free as possible. It’s a regular practice for the clerk of the board to maintain documents as PDFs because that preserves signatures and seals of ratified legislation, but to make it a policy of all departments could invite a landslide of work, printing out documents and converting them to PDFs - not to mention undermining the notion of conserving paper.
Also, translation software and the “screen reader” feature that a blind person might employ to “read” an electronic document, don’t work with PDFs.
First amendment lawyers also offered written opinions on the issue. “Some of the city’s arguments have no support in the law whatsoever,” wrote Francke.