MuckRock’s new Terms of Service

Building a better MuckRock

Written by Michael Morisy
Edited by JPat Brown

Shortly after MuckRock was founded, a public records request we published was found objectionable enough to warrant a state attorney informing us that if we didn’t remove the data the state had previously given us, we were subject to a year in jail. We never removed the data, but it was an early reminder of how important — and fragile — free expression is, and a challenge for us to do what we could to protect it.

Today, we have two important updates to our terms of service we hope align us better with this goal.

Community Code of Conduct

MuckRock is at its best when creative users use public records requests to ask questions, discover something new, and then share this information with the world. FOIA is a powerful and important tool, but not everything put in the frame of a public records request is a useful exercise in transparency. and we believe that using these tools for abuse hurts the entire requester community.

So we’re introducing a site Code of Conduct. For now, it has two simple elements, both of which are found on our Terms of Service page:

  • Requests are for requesting information, and not for stating or alleging unfounded allegations or making public accusations. Requests should include information that is useful to successfully searching for and reviewing the requested documents or data, but requests that include material that is defamatory or potentially defamatory are subject to removal or embargoing at the discretion of MuckRock staff. Users who file requests with defamatory or potentially defamatory material or statements are subject to having their accounts deactivated.
  • MuckRock is not to be used as a tool for harassment, including for purposes of intimidation, for causing intentional fear of injury, to seriously and repeatedly annoy another while serving no legitimate purpose, or to intentionally publish or cause to be published information of a private nature, such as social security numbers, personal health information, or information that would reasonably endanger the life or safety of a person. Requests that include harassing or endangering material are subject to removal or embargoing at the discretion of MuckRock staff. Users who file requests with harassing or endangering material are subject to having their accounts deactivated.

Forced Arbitration

The second update is actually removing a section from our terms of service. Up until now, our terms including language stating that any disputes between us and our users and visitors was to be handled through arbitration rather than the court system.

It wasn’t a clause we put much thought into, and in fact, I wasn’t specifically aware of it until the issue of forced arbitration was brought up by Eric Mill in another context. As he quoted Consumerist:

Companies want you to arbitrate because the system has been shown to be heavily unbalanced in favor of businesses — who have the legal knowledge, experience, and funding to put up a proper defense — while harmed consumers often enter into the complicated process without legal representation.

If MuckRock has any power and importance, it flows directly from the courts, which enforce FOIA, and our users, who put FOIA to work. Forced arbitration runs contrary to both of those, and so we’re getting rid of it. For posterity, the section read:

Any dispute relating in any way to your visit or access of the Service or to the products you purchase through the Service shall be submitted to binding arbitration in Suffolk County, Massachusetts. Arbitration under these Terms & Conditions shall be conducted under the rules then prevailing of the American Arbitration Association. The arbitrator's award shall be binding and may be entered as a judgment in any court of competent jurisdiction. To the fullest extent permitted by applicable law, no arbitration under these Conditions of Use shall be joined to an arbitration involving any other party subject to these Conditions of Use, whether through class arbitration proceedings or otherwise.

This section is now entirely removed (currently, on our Terms of Service page, it is struck through for clarity).

We think these changes will improve and clarify how we operate for everyone; if you disagree or have suggestions, we welcome feedback, and I can be reached directly at Michael@MuckRock.com. We will make mistakes, but we hope to steadily improve the service we provide, and when we err, err on the side of our users and on the side of transparency.


Image via Library of Congress