“Policy neutral” does not mean “neutral policies”
Below is a copy of a comment I posted today to the Future Digital System (FDsys) Blog in response to a discussion thread there on the “policy neutral” nature of the FDsys.I invite your responses here or there.
“Policy neutral” does not mean “neutral policies.”
“Policy neutral” means that there are no inviolable policies. The new system will, according to Magan Fleetwood, “adapt” to “guidelines created or adopted by GPO.” So, while GPO may be committed today to no-fee permanent public access, the future digital system is designed to accommodate a change to that policy. While the FDsys requirements “do not prevent or limit free public access to authenticated content” neither do the requirements guarantee it. On the contrary, the system is designed to accommodate any policy, including the opposite of the current commitment. The FDSys is designed to be flexible enough to accommodate treating different information products differently — some without fees and some with fees, for instance.
It is easy to imagine how well-intentioned policies today could be superseded by financial or other constraints tomorrow. (See What the Copyright Office / Internet Explorer rule tells us about government information for real-life examples of such constraints.) The original “Transition Plan” was explicit about recognizing limitations when it said, “Electronic information under the custody of the SOD will be maintained for access” not permanently, but only, “as long as usage warrants.” [emphasis added]. We can take no comfort from the fact that this wording (from 1996-1998 Transition Plan) has been dropped from subsequent plans because the new system is being designed not to prevent such policies, but to accommodate them.
It is easy to imagine FDSys adapting to new policies and dropping information such as old reports that are not being used frequently, or statistics that are “out of date,” or content judged “sensitive” by politicians, or large databases that are too expensive to keep online. It is easy to imagine content that is expensive to keep online and that is not used frequently being relegated to a fee-based system, or “permanent” access being provided by private-sector “partners.” It is easy to imagine policies changing to accommodate financial constraints so that some information is available to the public without fees, but other information (or more functional versions of that information) are available only for a fee.
When government information was deposited in depository libraries, such policy changes were difficult or impossible to implement. The new system is being designed to make it easy to implement them.
In fairness, GPO cannot guarantee anything else. Magan is right to include qualifications to GPO’s commitment to providing no-fee permanent public access; (“Based on enabling legislation” and “in-scope content” and “GPO intends to… permit…” [emphasis added]). GPO cannot go beyond what it is legislatively authorized and funded to do. How could it guarantee to provide access in the future to content that became defined by others as out of scope? How could it provide permanent, public, no-fee access to everything if its funding became inadequate to do so? How can GPO guarantee no-fee access if its own mission is to distribute electronic documents “on a cost recovery basis.” GPO cannot guarantee these things so its “commitment,” while noble, is not enough.
There are, however, two things that GPO can guarantee. I ask GPO to respond here if it will do so.
1. Will GPO guarantee that it will provide information products for free to the public and that those products will be fully-functional and not encumbered, disabled, controlled or otherwise non-optimal or locked-down versions?
2. Will GPO guarantee that it will make available for deposit, without fee, into FDLP libraries that wish to receive them, all fully functional digital government information products within its purview?
These are guarantees that GPO can make and that will accomplish two things that promises of future commitment cannot. First, they will ensure that government information will be, at its release, freely available to all without encumbrance and individuals will be able to use and re-use the information without having to pay for the information or its use and re-use. Second, while GPO cannot control the future, it can ensure that every new document is deposited, at its release, in as many libraries as possible, creating a safety net and alternative to the FDSys in case policies change.