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Q&A: Gary Ruskin, U.S. Right to Know

‘We Have the Best Congress Money Can Buy’

By Samantha Stone

Privacy is one side of a coin called information, endlessly tossed, with the hope that it lands on its flip side — where secrets are revealed.

Gary Ruskin gets involved when he thinks the secrets are a matter of public interest. When the coin lands on its edge and spins between transparency and obfuscation, Ruskin works to disrupt the spin.

In 2015, he cofounded U.S. Right to Know, which uses the U.S. Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) to expose public-health hazards.

Companies caught in the glare include agribusiness giant Monsanto Corp., which endured USRTK’s scrutiny during the high-profile cancer lawsuits by users of Roundup weed-killer. More recently, the group sued the National Institutes of Health and others for resisting FOIA requests about the origins of COVID-19.

Decades ago, Ruskin fought for privacy — through Consumer Alert, an organization cofounded with longtime consumer advocate Ralph Nader — but it’s not part of his current mission.

He initially declined Digital Privacy News’ invitation to discuss privacy. He relented, perhaps because he sensed we would be relentless. 

Ruskin, however, doesn’t waste many words on current-day privacy concerns.

He dismissed some questions, but he did say that privacy is suffering at the hands of corporate violators who should be restrained.

This interview was edited for length and clarity.

You’ve spent decades gathering information, some of it very hard to get. Is it easier now to pursue public information, given that it’s primarily digital?

Digitization hasn’t really affected my work that much.

It’s a little easier to consume because it’s digital.

At USRTK, “we’re seeking information that will protect people’s health or their lives, and their families and children.”

PDFs are searchable — and so you can scan through material more quickly now.

But in my work, that’s the only really significant change, as related to digitization.

Has it become harder to get it released?

That’s a hard question.

I’ve been writing FOIAs for a long time, working with investigative reporters for a long time.

I don’t know if it’s harder or easier.

To me, there’s a rising disincentive to producing investigative work.

That comes from when I started doing public-interest work in Washington in the early-mid ’90s, there were a lot of investigative reporters around.

It was much-less challenging to find one who was interested in what you were interested in and to give them things that they could write up.

Now, there are very few investigative reporters — and, so, the number of journalists who could take investigative raw materials and do something with them is comparatively small.

That leads to a disincentive to actually do investigative work.

But there are government records and other original sources, if you know where to look?

Certainly.

And, in the 1970s, we had congressional committees that used to regularly conduct investigations about consumer and environmental or other public-interest matters that affected people.

Now, those investigations don’t happen nearly as much.

You have to have some really good material to trigger one.

So, again, causing a disincentive to do investigative work.

What has triggered that change?

In journalism and media companies, it’s very disaggregated.

There’s different answers for different publications. It’s hard to generalize.

But if you’re asking me to generalize, I guess it’s no surprise that newsroom budgets have been crashing all over the country.

“There’s a rising disincentive to producing investigative work.”

Investigative journalism is very expensive per column-inch. It’s easy to see why that would get cut first — and get cut hard.

But as newsroom budgets have crashed, advertisers have more influence in newsrooms than they did. 

There’s an increased desire to please the advertisers.

Advertisers generally hate investigative coverage, because it comes after their industry or a neighboring industry or adjacent industry.

So, it’s not popular with advertisers.

In other words, follow the money?

Right.

Would that apply also to congressional investigations?

I think so.

Our federal campaign finance system has been a scandal for a long time — and we have the best Congress money can buy.

That has been true for a long time. It’s probably more true now than ever before.

That’s a big reason why we don’t have congressional investigations about things that matter to ordinary folks on a day-to-day basis.

Does that explain why litigation is more frequent now?

Do you mean FOIA litigation?

Yes, because discovery during litigation might reveal what previously came from congressional hearings.

Sometimes, yes of course.

The purpose of the litigation, then, is to get information?

It’s to vindicate the federal FOIA law or the state FOIA laws.

How often are you successful?

Depends on what “success” means.

How often do you get what you’re going after?

It’s a hard question to answer, because you never know beforehand what you’re going after.

But you never know what’s there.

You don’t know if you’ve gotten everything, or you don’t know if you’ve gotten more than you should have gotten.

A quest for sensitive information is always the same, isn’t it — whether it’s about a person, a business or the government? There’s the barrier, and there’s the effort to penetrate the barrier.

That’s not the way I think about it.

At U.S. Right to Know, we conduct investigations to promote public health or the environment.

“Advertisers generally hate investigative coverage, because it comes after their industry or a neighboring industry or adjacent industry.”

We’re seeking information that will protect people’s health or their lives, and their families and children — so, there are different ways of seeking that information, to be sure.

FOIA is one way. Whistleblowers are another way. There are different ways.

On one occasion, you sought access to emails exchanged by public university researchers. They feared that you’d use the messages, out of context, to damage their reputations. That’s the fight: a privacy claim versus the public’s legitimate right to know?

Yes — and, in fact, a bunch of that information ended up on the front page of The New York Times.

Because of your investigation?

Because I gave it to the Times.

This is what I’m getting at: The claim to privacy might be offset by the need to reveal.

Or the public interest.

Would you always come down on the side of transparency?

No. In fact, there are documents we don’t release.

We use documents that are useful to the public. But if they’re not useful, we don’t release them.

Privacy is one of the reasons, for sure.

What does that evaluation entail?

It’s not a formal process — but I look at every document and every page and think about what the relative value to the public is: Are there privacy concerns here?

On another subject, consumer laws are being crafted to protect privacy in state houses around the country and at the federal level. Are you watching these processes? 

We don’t work on that at all. I used to work on that kind of thing years ago, very tangentially.

Focusing on school children, right?

In 1998, Ralph Nader and I founded Commercial Alert, which opposed the commercialization of every nook and cranny of our lives and culture.

Big-Tech is not very respectful of our privacy.”

One of the things we tried to do was defend children’s privacy: Whether it was school-based efforts to try and extract children’s personal information, that was most of it.

Privacy invasion of students in schools. 

It’s still going on, with vendors providing online learning tools to the public schools for free, as part of a data-gathering business model?

That’s exactly the issue we worked on. Precisely.

It was a story about something called ZapMe (a company providing free computer equipment and access to public school systems).

They had a browser filter that was extracting children’s personal information.

They had a whistleblower who told us how it worked. We got their contracts and found that it was so.

We ran a campaign about it across the country, and there was a front-page New York Times story about it.

They ended up leaving every school in the country (in 2000).

In 1970, Nader had what was the largest privacy-invasion settlement awarded by a court, $425,000. Was his interest in privacy spurred by what led him to sue General Motors?

You should ask him — but Ralph is a private man and was interested in privacy before then.

I think the General Motors campaign against him weighed on his interest in privacy. 

The GM tactic of surveilling someone who has been critical of the product was done by Monsanto to you and your colleagues. The company set up an “intelligence fusion center” to monitor your social media use.

I don’t think it’s totally like that.

The fusion center, I assume, was pre-existing — and we were just the target of it.

But, yeah, they did. They ran a surveil-and-discredit operation against us. 

So, it’s the same tactic, except there are a more tools now: digital ones?

No question.

I’m sure Monsanto understands the difference between gathering useful information, and a legally actionable invasion of privacy. But was there anything other than watching social media?

There was an effort to discredit us through front groups and public relations.

But, of course, this is America: Anybody can say anything because of the First Amendment.

Was there defamation?

Defamation cases only happen when you get paid for them. 

Did you feel defamed?

I certainly think that the agrochemical industry — and Monsanto, in particular — have tried to destroy the reputations of myself and my colleagues. Sure. 

Through tactics like GM used on Nader?

I wouldn’t call them the same tactics; I would call them “different tactics.”

But, yeah, they certainly tried to destroy Ralph’s public image — and Monsanto has tried to do that to me and my colleagues, as well.

As someone who has worked on privacy issues, and as a citizen, you must care about it, still? 

I do, sure.

I think I have nothing original to say — but for what it’s worth: Big-Tech is not very respectful of our privacy.

“Our federal campaign finance system has been a scandal for a long time … .  It’s probably more true now than ever before.”

It’s long past time to strengthen the Federal Trade Commission to investigate privacy violations.

And, we need stronger antitrust enforcement in the United States.

Samantha Stone is a Nevada writer.

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