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City of Seattle Releases Documents, Then Court Orders Them Wiped from the Web

It looks like the city made a mistake, yet private citizens are getting sued.

by Joseph Cox
May 27 2016, 6:06pm

Sorry Frasier, we're confused too. Image: Getty

A court has ordered freedom of information platform MuckRock to remove documents obtained by a public records access request. On top of that, multiple lawsuits have been filed against the site, the activist who filed the request, and the City of Seattle, which provided the documents.

MuckRock has complied with the request and removed the documents, pending a legal challenge, while the documents have proliferated online in response to the takedown order.

Landis+Gyr, a subsidiary of Toshiba and the main company behind the lawsuits, says that trade secrets and sensitive security information have been exposed. Not only did Landis+Gyr request removal of the documents from MuckRock, but it also wants help identifying any readers who saw them.

The access request, submitted in April, sought access to a wide range of records, including contracts and results of security audits for so-called smart meters, which are designed to replace traditional meters for measuring electricity use.

"I was trying to find out if the city planned any independent security audits of the system proposed by their chosen vendor," Phil Mocek, the activist who filed the request, told Motherboard in a phone call.

Shortly after MuckRock published a number of responsive documents, the site received a takedown request from attorneys representing Landis+Gyr for two of them.

"The two documents in question apparently were released prematurely by the City of Seattle, before Landis+Gyr was allowed to redact trade secret and sensitive network security information, and before Landis+Gyr could exercise its rights to prevent release of protected information through the court system," the request, addressed to Mocek, Morisy and GoDaddy.com reads. The letter was written by Eric L. Christensen from Cairncross & Hempelmann, a Seattle-based law firm.

Christensen writes that "significant portions" of the documents are protected from public disclosure because they contain information on Landis+Gyr's proprietary electronic security protocols and operations. The letter alleges competitors could steal Landis+Gyr's technology, or (perhaps in a strange twist considering the motivations of Mocek's original request) that hackers could figure out how to penetrate its products.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), which is now representing MuckRock, told Motherboard that three lawsuits had been filed in total. The lawsuits are broad in scope, not just targeting MuckRock or Mocek, but the City of Seattle, and Seattle City Light, the department that released the documents.

"It's baffling that I and MuckRock are defendants in the lawsuit," Mocek said. "I simply requested public records from a public agency, and MuckRock facilitated the communication of those records. So if there has been any mistake made, it was made by the city." According to the correspondence between him and the City of Seattle, Mocek asked for the documents to be redacted as required by the law.

Phone calls to the media department of Seattle City Light, and Stacy Irwin, the public disclosure officer who handled the request, went unanswered.

David Greene, senior staff attorney at the EFF, said the dispute was between the company and the agency that released the documents. Ultimately, whatever harm may or may not fall on the company because of documents provided to MuckRock "does not diminish MuckRock's right to publish information," he told Motherboard in a phone call.

The court's order to remove documents obtained by a public records access law is arguably a dangerous move on press freedom.

"In the US, typically, we have a right to publish documents that have been lawfully obtained," Michael Morisy, the founder of MuckRock told Motherboard in a phone call. Companies have asked for content to be removed from MuckRock before he added, but things had never gotten this far.

Even with the court order however, Landis+Gyr has very little hope of keeping these documents off the internet. Several people have already mirrored them on other sites, and one person has even uploaded them to a Tor hidden service.

Christensen, the attorney who filed the takedown request, declined to comment when reached by phone. Another legal source involved in the case did not want to speak on the record.

"The public have a right to know what's happening with their city government, and we should be concerned when private companies are able to subvert a public records law to block access to that information," Mocek said.

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