Business filings aren’t everyone’s cup of tea, but then, not everyone is Tony Webster.
For Webster, as an independent journalist and researcher, public records his bread and butter. Late last year, he decided to revisit an old project: digging up potential fraud among Minneapolis landlords. To start, Webster needed a lot of data from the Minnesota Secretary of State.
You can get all kinds of info on businesses through the office’s online database, but it’s got certain limitations. For example, you can only find a company by searching for its name—not the name of the person who owns it or its address.
That makes Webster’s job particularly difficult. A lot of the landlords he’s digging into buy and sell properties so quickly that it’s hard to pin them down—let alone look into possible violations—using just their business names.
So in early January, Webster did what he frequently does when public data isn’t immediately available: He sent an information request. State law says that except in very specific cases, outside the cost it takes staff to find and prepare it, this info is free and must be made available for the public to peruse.
Webster was willing to pay for the business information he wanted. He was not, however, willing to pay $13,500—which is what the office charged him.
“That’s a lot of money for a freelance journalist, or any journalistic organization,” he says.
Not only that, he’d have to sign a contract agreeing to certain limitations on how he could use the data—and hand over his social security number.
He asked the office why it expected such an exorbitant sum. Surely it didn’t cost that much to send the data he needed. According to a letter sent by the office’s legal adviser, Bibi Black, on January 10, it was in part because the data had “commercial value.” In short, the dirt Webster wanted was a product, and other “customers” were willing to buy it at a price.
In certain “narrow” cases, it’s legal to charge a “commercial use” fee for public data, but state law says that fee has to be “reasonable,” and the government office selling the data has to have the receipts to prove it. Webster asked why $13,500 was a reasonable fee, and the Office of the Secretary of State didn’t answer him, he says.
So he sued them. A complaint filed last week alleges the office violated the Minnesota Government Data Practices Act, and should pay damages to dissuade it from trying to do so again. Webster has posted the details of the suit online, where anyone can check it out and follow the proceedings.
The office didn’t respond to interview requests other than sending along a link to its various fees for different kinds of business data.
It’s not the first time Webster has sued for information that should have been public. His last lawsuit was against Hennepin County. He wanted to learn more about the technology being used for surveillance across the state’s law enforcement agencies—specifically facial recognition.
It took him three years and a trip to the Minnesota Supreme Court, but he eventually got that data. However, by that time he was looking at a 2015 technology report in 2018—hopelessly out of date and pretty much useless for reporting. But that wasn’t necessarily the point. Webster’s just as concerned for the next person to come around asking for information as he is for himself.
The Secretary of State’s data isn’t just for journalists and entrepreneurs. It’s for consumers. As it stands, the public can't look up a company owner and see if they’ve actually registered with the state, or find out what other businesses they’re running. Technically, the information belongs to the public. If they can afford it.
“I just don’t think it’s good public policy to turn public data into a commercialized product they make money from," Webster says.
The suit is in its very early stages. Webster says his and the office’s lawyers have been hashing things out. He’s hoping he’s not due for another trip to the Supreme Court.