The press coverage says Court Orders IRS to Release Computer-Readable Charity Tax Forms. There’s this guy Carl Malamud who runs, which is in the business of making public legal materials actually public. “What,” you exclaim, “Public legal filings aren’t already public?!” Nope, not unless citizens can get full-text versions for free. This is the story of how I helped Carl (in a small way) to stick a small wedge into a wall of really stupid public-sector resistance to openness.

There’s this law in America called 5 U.S.C. § 552(a)(3)(B) (“E-FOIA”) that says (if I understand correctly) that nonprofits’ tax filings should be public, but that they don’t have to disclose who their donors are. The IRS has historically asserted a blanket refusal to provide these filings in any useful form, claiming it was too hard and too expensive because of the cost of redacting the donor information. This is irritating given that the nonprofits’ tax filings are in XML and thus pretty easy to machine-process or even hand-edit.

So Carl and sued the IRS’ ass, saying “No, it’s not hard and it’s not expensive and we can prove it.” And they won. One of the ways they proved it was with an affadavit from yours truly (PDF). It contains the paragraph, which I suspect readers here will enjoy (skip ahead to ¶15):

In order to remove (redact) one element nested inside an XML file, I use a common programmers’ tool called a "text editor." Any professional programmer has access to such software. In this case, I used a text editor called emacs. Other examples of text editors are "TextEdit" on an Apple computer, "Vim" on any Linux computer, and "Notepad" on any Windows computer.”

It would be unfair to highlight only the filings from Our Side; so, for legal eagles, here’s the full court docket.

Emacs for freedom! Someone tell RMS!


Comment feed for ongoing:Comments feed

From: Tom Magliery (Feb 02 2015, at 10:32)

'Course in a real XML editor (not ubiquitous but c'mon, you're the IRS), the actual redaction is reduced to one click + one keystroke.


From: J. King (Feb 02 2015, at 12:05)

I know, KISS, but really wouldn't it just be a matter of running, on demand, whatever document is requested through a stream filter which runs an XPath query and deletes/rewrites whatever matches? Talk about hard...


From: Gavin B. (Feb 02 2015, at 23:37)

Yesterday I updated Notepad++ on windows

and, lo and behold, on first new use it runs a macro that letter-by-letter types out a message

First I thought oh no a virus!

Then I saw it was a message in support of

Je suis C'.

Kind of a neat way of getting to us geeks.


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