A grassroots effort to recover the extant records has sprung up amid controversy over the USDA’s decision to remove the files from the web.
It's a well known edict that once something has been posted online, it can never be removed. That's turning out to be the case for thousands of animal welfare records that the Department of Agriculture removed from the web last week. Now, a government transparency blog is on a mission to recover, and republish, as many of these records as possible.
"Whenever there are documents that were online, but got pulled offline, they're automatically important," said Russ Kick, who runs the blog The Memory Hole 2, where many of the documents have already been re-published. "Nobody's going to go through the trouble to delete something that doesn't matter."
The documents, which were removed by the USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) late last week, included inspection records and annual reports made under the Animal Welfare Act and the Horse Protection Act. The USDA indicated that removing the documents was in response to a court decision, but a spokesperson contacted by Motherboard would not specify what court case.
The records were typically used by animal welfare groups to keep tabs on how well these laws were being enforced, but were also used by the general public to research the inspection records of everything from dog breeders to circuses and zoos.
One type of file included in the deleted database was annual reports on animal experimentation. In order to get authorization to experiment on live animals, research facilities have to file annual reports to the USDA. On Tuesday, Kick published thousands of these reports, which he had downloaded last summer.
"I've learned that if I see something and think 'I'm really surprised the government posted this,' I need to download it," Kick told me. "So when I found these reports, I thought 'this is surprising,' and I downloaded them."
But these files are only part of the cache that the USDA removed, and Kick has been looking for help collecting other kinds of records. He told me one reader already reached out with the animal welfare inspection reports that had been online—these are related to violations of the AWA, like if a circus has an animal escape—which he hopes to upload soon.
A spokesperson for the USDA told me APHIS is currently involved in litigation concerning information posted on its website.
"While the agency is vigorously defending against this litigation, in an abundance of caution, the agency is taking additional measures to protect individual privacy," Tanya Espinosa, public affairs specialist for APHIS, wrote via email. "These decisions are not final. Adjustments may be made regarding information appropriate for release and posting."