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Free Government Information (FGI) is a place for initiating dialogue and building consensus among the various players (libraries, government agencies, non-profit organizations, researchers, journalists, etc.) who have a stake in the preservation of and perpetual free access to government information. FGI promotes free government information through collaboration, education, advocacy and research.

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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