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Public Online Information Act (POIA) announced. Libraries and the public cheer

The Sunlight Foundation announced today a new bill introduced by Congressman Steve Israel (NY-2) called the Public online Information Act (POIA) (read the bill (PDF)). POIA will require that all “public” executive branch documents be permanently available on the Internet at no cost. POIA also creates a:

“special federal advisory committee to coordinate the development of Internet disclosure policies. These policies promote information best practices, including data interoperability standards, and will keep the government up-to-date with new technology. The advisory committee’s 19 members – six appointed by each branch of government, plus one by GSA – are drawn from the public and private sectors and serve as watchdogs, synthesizing the needs of agencies and the public and making recommendations on updating federal law.”

While I wholeheartedly support the spirit of POIA — free permanent internet access to executive branch documents! — and will definitely be contacting my representative to support its passage, I have 2 concerns that I hope will be discussed by the Sunlight community, the soon-to-be federal advisory committee, libraries and the public:

1) preservation: There was an article in today’s NY Times — “Fending Off Digital Decay, Bit by Bit” — that highlights the many issues surrounding digital preservation. Just putting something on the Web does not mean that it will be preserved. The GPO has been working on their Federal Digital System (FDsys) since 2004 (and really since 1994 when they started GPOaccess) to deal with the inherent digital issues. Many researchers, librarians, academics, computer programmers etc have been working on these issues pretty much since the 1960s. And the issues are still here today.

So I’d like to see as part of this bill an acknowledgement that online information is expensive to preserve AND that there will be continued funding for research and sustainability of digital archives through the National Digital Information Infrastructure & Preservation Program (NDIIPP). Readers are encouraged to explore the issues here and here.

2) privatization of govt information: The following from the Sunlight announcement caught my eye and concerned me:

Freeing government information from its paper silos provides the private sector with raw material to develop new products and services and gives the public what they need to participate in government as active and informed citizens.

Federal government information is in the public domain. That’s a good thing. However, there’s a fundamental issue at stake here. One can’t have “permanent free public access” to government information where the private sector is involved. The private sector has been involved in giving access to government information for a long time (see LexisNexis, Thomson West, Readex etc). They do it well but they certainly don’t do it for free. Libraries and other organizations have paid many millions of dollars to license access to govt information for the communities they serve. Here’s more background and context on privatization. For all intents and purposes, these private sector companies take public domain information and privatize it. Any digital govt information accessible on the internet should already be findable, usable and accessible in bulk at minimum.

But there needs to be more. What I’d like to see in this bill and in the discussion after it passes (devil’s in the details right?!) is not only a requirement that all govt information is online permanently and for free, but that there be the inclusion of a viral GNU General Public License-like piece of the public domain whereby anything IN the public domain (i.e., govt information) has to STAY IN the public domain. There are plenty of folks (I’m looking at you Sunlight, Govtrack.us, OpenCongress, OpenCRS etc) excited about making govt information more available, more usable and more shareable and this would support their public service.

Please help Sunlight get the word out about POIA and contact your representative and let them know that they should co-sponsor POIA and assure its passage.



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3 Comments

  1. jajacobs says:

    James and John,

    Thanks for these useful comments! I want to add one thing to the thread about CC or GNU-like affirmative licensing (or affirmation of rights).

    This relates to the issue of privatizing information. If documents released today had something embedded at the time of their release that prohibited their being locked up in the future, it would make it easier to keep these documents free-as-in-beer. The danger this would address is a future change in government policy that would take documents released today off of government servers in the future — and the possibility that some content would then be available only from the private sector. You can imagine the scenario: a few years after release of documents, government budget constraints put pressure on an agency to take something offline and the argument is made that “since these documents are still accessible” (albeit at a cost), it won’t hurt to take them off government servers and save some taxpayer money. In such a scenario, if the documents served by the private sector have “affirmative rights” of free re-use, then private sector vendors cannot limit the use and re-use by their users of those documents.

    By the way, we like it when anyone, including the private sector, adds value to public information. The private sector often offers information for a fee when they provide a service that no one else provides. What we don’t like (and want to avoid) is situations where the private sector is the only source of public information. We have seen the information industry (and even the OMB) argue that the government should not “compete” with the private sector — and too often what they mean is that they want the private sector to be the sole supplier of information. That is bad because it means everyone must pay for the information. This is a case of the private sector charging for the information (which should be free), and not for the service. This is why we don’t agree with the arguments in Felten (et al.) article, “Government Data and the Invisible Hand” (See more here.)

    Thanks again to you both for thinking through the issues in public!

    – jim

  2. Thanks so much for the words of encouragement!

    I think Sunlight agrees wholeheartedly with both of the sentiments you raised.

    In taking on a new idea like this — getting all executive branch public information to be posted online — there’s a difficult balance to strike, between simplicity and complexity. We expect (and hope) that this bill will engender significant conversation about important topics which didn’t fit well in the initial bill.

    The proper OMB administrator for regulatory responsibility, the best enforcement mechanisms, the structural design of an advisory committee — these and many more issues present complex questions. This bill is an attempt to present a vision for answering them. For any topic this bill touches on, we could attempt to codify them entirely, create regulatory responsibilities, codify them vaguely, punt to the advisory committee, etc. etc.

    We’ve often been asked, for example, whether the online publication requirement would apply to the NARA or LOC holdings. To me, digitizing our nation’s historical holdings would be almost immeasurably valuable. At the same time, it’s probably a problem best answered separately from this particular bill (at least at its inception). That will doubtlessly be true of a number of other closely related, very important issues — like metadata standards, budgetary concerns, or authentication. Those are all enormously important, and if they get more attention as a result of this effort, then I’d be quite happy.

    On your second point, I agree that there is a need for a CC or GNU-like affirmative licensing (or affirmation of rights) system for government documents. I’m don’t think we’re quite at the point yet where we can propose a legislative solution, although I’d love it if we were. I can imagine such a system being put together as a joint project of the DOJ and the GPO. To me, affirmative licensing rights for government documents represent the next step in transparency more generally — moving beyond explicit requirements for publication, and beyond FOIA requests, toward affirmative dissemation. That kind of proactive disclosure requires nuanced distinctions — the kind of distinctions that exist in the preservation space (though not well for digital preservation), and in the realm of classification. They don’t exist yet for public information disclosure.

    For us, POIA represents a specific, large step towards affirmative disclosure online. If anything, this is the easy part — public information should be comparatively easy to get online, compared to more complex fights that are next.

    Thanks again for the comments!

    John Wonderlich
    Policy Director
    Sunlight Foundation

  3. Jim W says:

    I am interested in contacting elected officials without having to go their websites. Is there anybody who might have direct email addresses without the required webforms to correspond. Thank you.

    Jim

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