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GAO *did* sell exclusive access to legislative history to Thomson West

A few weeks ago, Daniel had a great post, “GAO/Thomson-West Contract Raises Questions” in which he expanded on a Boing Boing post “Did the US gov’t sell exclusive access to its legislative history to Thomson West?” and analyzed the Thompson-West contract with the GAO for digitizing 20,597 legislative histories of most public laws from 1915-1995. Today, Carl Malamud got an answer to his FOIA request to the GAO seeking access to the digitized images of those legislative histories. I’ll let Carl tell it in his own words:

Well, the answer is now a definitive yes, that data has been sold down the river and is out to sea.
Public.Resource.Org sent in a FOIA request to GAO on this topic seeking access to the scanned data. Today’s letter answering our FOIA request spells out the bad news. Turns out the GAO doesn’t even get the data, they simply are given an account on Thomson’s service. The rest of the government doesn’t get access to this data, and the public is invited to stop by the GAO headquarters and pay 20 cents per page to copy paper.

This is one of those deals where the public domain got sold off … GAO gets a bit of convenience by having their stuff scanned for them, but they gave up way more than they got in the deal, and the public (including government workers and public interest groups who need to consult this data) lost big-time.

Carl has put up his paper trail explaining the story. Here’s the link to the Scribd group with the full paper trail on this issue, and here’s the link to last week’s response from the GAO.

This perfectly exemplifies the problems we see with government agencies entering into contracts with private companies to digitize public domain materials (see for example “NARA/TGN contract as a bad precedent”). We have no problem with government agencies contracting with private companies to digitize government information. The problem as we see it is that so many agencies seem ignorant of the fact that privatizing access to said digitized public domain information actually limits access in the long run.


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