Dirt Diggers Digest No. 80  

Editor: Philip Mattera

September 27, 2007



-- 1. Happy Right to Know Day

-- 2. Pressure mounts for corporate disclosure of climate risk

-- 3. Shareholder activists mobilize to oppose restrictions on resolutions

-- 4. Another federal contracts database unveiled

-- 5. SEC seeks more details on executive compensation

-- 6. PACER to provide federal court transcripts

-- 7. Report sees rise in corporate attention to social responsibility

-- 8. Tracking down cell phone numbers

-- 9. Finding online corporate information you are not supposed to see

-- 10. WikiScanner exposes conflicts of interest among Wikipedia editors

-- 11. Job Posting [not included in web version]


1. Happy Right to Know Day


Tomorrow, September 28, is International Right to Know Day, an event meant to raise public awareness of the issue of government transparency. The word "international" in the name reflects the fact that access to government information is a matter of growing concern throughout the world. Promotion of Right to Know Day is being led by the FOI Advocates Network, a coalition whose funding flows through the Access to Information Programme in Bulgaria.


2. Pressure mounts for corporate disclosure of climate risk


Treasurers and other financial officials from ten states recently joined with Environmental Defense and CERES in filing what they called a landmark petition to the Securities and Exchange Commission, asking the agency to require publicly traded companies to disclose the risks that climate change may pose to their financial condition. The coalition, whose members oversee the management of more than $1.5 trillion in assets, also announced that it was asking the SEC's Division of Corporate Finance to investigate whether the absence of climate disclosure represents a violation of existing law.

The petition follows a request last March by the members of the Investor Network on Climate Risk that the SEC clarify its climate disclosure requirements. The agency has not responded to that request.

Meanwhile, the campaign continues on voluntary corporate disclosure of carbon emissions data. Earlier this week, the Carbon Disclosure Project released its fifth compilation of responses from a survey of 500 of the world's largest companies on their carbon emissions. More than three-quarters of the companies now respond to the survey, though not all provide emissions data.


3. Shareholder activists mobilize to oppose restrictions on resolutions


Shareholder activist groups have been building opposition to proposals by the Securities and Exchange Commission that could seriously restrict their ability to submit proxy resolutions. Among the possibilities that the SEC suggested as part of a reform of the advisory resolution process would be giving boards the right to opt out of the process, replacing resolutions with online shareholder chat rooms and raising the voting levels required for an unsuccessful resolution to be resubmitted.

The Social Investment Forum and the Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility, with the support of CERES, have created a website called Save Shareholder Rights that facilitates the submission of comments to the SEC on the resolution issue. The deadline for comments is next Tuesday, October 2.


4. Another federal contracts database unveiled


While the U.S. Office of Management and Budget and the General Services Administration are reviewing vendor bids to create the database of federal contracts and other spending mandated by Congress in 2006, another non-governmental entity has come forth with its own online service. Following in the footsteps of OMB Watch, which introduced its FedSpending site about a year ago, Global Computer Enterprises Inc. (GCE) has created the FFATA Information Center (the acronym stands for the Federal Funding Accountability and Transparency Act, the law passed by Congress to create an official database).

GCE is the contractor that had been hired by the General Services Administration to upgrade the Federal Procurement Data System, which for years has been providing contract data in a less than user-friendly way. The new FFATA portal provides simple keyword searching of a database that is said to include all contracts since 1979. However, it does not provide as many search features as FedSpending.org, which recently announced the inclusion of updated data and the ability to search by contractor characteristics such as being a minority-owned business.


5. SEC seeks more details on executive compensation


The Securities and Exchange Commission recently sent letters to nearly 300 publicly traded companies critiquing the disclosures they made on executive compensation in their proxy statements this year and asking for additional information. The move was made without prior announcement and without issuing a press release. According to the Wall Street Journal (August 31), the letters were faxed directly to chief executives, creating "much consternation" in executive suites and prompting emergency meetings of board compensation committees. The letters came in the wake of new rules adopted by the SEC last year that were supposed to greatly improve the quality of compensation disclosure.


6. PACER to provide federal court transcripts


The PACER database is taking another step toward making federal court cases completely accessible online. The Judicial Conference of the United States, which operates PACER, recently announced that it has decided to make transcripts of federal district and bankruptcy court proceedings available through the service. The plan is to make the transcripts available for download 90 days after they are produced by court reporters and delivered to the clerk's office. Unfortunately, the transcripts--like the dockets and filings now available on PACER--will come at a price: eight cents per page.


7. Report sees rise in corporate attention to social responsibility


Ethical Investment Research Services, a London-based non-profit, recently issued a report concluding that corporations around the world are paying more attention than ever to issues of social responsibility. The EIRIS study, titled The State of Responsible Business, sees the most progress among European countries and finds that North American corporations lag significantly behind. Japanese companies, the report claims, demonstrate strong performance on environmental matters but not other social issues.


8. Tracking down cell phone numbers


It doesn't help the cause of privacy, but researchers may be pleased to learn that databases of cell phone numbers are beginning to appear. The commercial service Intelius recently launched a database that provides access to cell numbers (as well as unlisted landlines) said to have been collected from public records. There is no charge to search the directory to see if someone is included, but getting the actual number costs $15. According to the Seattle Times, an Intelius executive claimed that the company has 120 million cell numbers, or about half of all mobile accounts.


9. Finding online corporate information you are not supposed to see


Genie Tyburski, producer of a valuable info service on legal research called The Virtual Chase, recently published a useful piece on how to find "private" information on a company's (or other organization's) website that is accessible because of sloppy web posting practices. Tyburski calls the article "Searching Dirty to Find What's Hidden."


10. WikiScanner exposes conflicts of interest among Wikipedia editors


Now that Wikipedia has become one of the most widely used online reference sources, powerful corporations and institutions have been paying more attention to how they are depicted in the democratically-edited site. Unfortunately, many of them are not focusing on cleaning up their act so their Wikipedia entry improves accordingly. Instead, there has been a spate of recent stories about people working in these institutions who have rewritten their employer's entry in a more flattering way. These stories have come to light thanks to a new search tool called WikiScanner that removes the cloak of affiliational anonymity from Wikipedia editors.

Created by California Institute of Technology graduate student Virgil Griffith, WikiScanner makes it possible to trace the IP addresses of those who make Wikipedia edits. At Griffith's site, one can enter the name of a company or organization and see what Wikipedia edits have been made by anyone using a computer linked to that institution. You can also choose a Wikipedia entry and display the IP addresses of those who have edited it.