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What it’s like to sue the government for data

Marketplace Weekend Staff May 28, 2016

It started out simply: Quartz’s David Yanofsky was reporting a story about the number of Brazilians who visit Disney World each year. He needed data about who was entering the United States, and when, where, and why. When he found the information he was looking for, he got some bad news: he’d have to buy it.

A subset of the Department of Commerce was charging $173,775* for the data. Attempts to get the data through a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request, a regular outlet for journalists, were unsuccessful. Why sell? “Because they can,” Yanofsky says. For hotels and other businesses in the tourism industry, the high price tag is worth the valuable data, which they can use for marketing. 

For Yanofsky, however, the price of data was worth some pushback — he decided to sue for the right to access the data. The case, which has not yet gone to court, could set an interesting precedent for how the government handles FOIA requests, and whether information can be hidden behind a paywall. 

To learn more about the case, Lizzie O’Leary spoke to Yanofsky. To hear the full interview, tune into this week’s episode.




*The audio broadcast for this segment omitted the word “thousand” from the price for the data — the actual fee is the one listed above, $173,775. 


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