Agencies, Resellers Vie for Government Data

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Agencies, Resellers Vie for Government Data

By Neil Munro
Staff Writer

Spurred by lobbyists, Congress is preparing to further curb federal agencies' efforts to sell government data, such as agency reports and medical studies.

"Agencies are trying to privatize government information, make money from it and be in competition with the private sector," said Eric Peterson, staff director of Congress' Joint Committee on Printing. "It is raising a lot of controversy in Congress and the administration." Although limited in number, such sales are illegal, argues Dan Duncan, a lobbyist with the Washington-based Information Industries Association who is trying to curb federal data selling on behalf of the IIA's members. The membership includes The Washington Post Co. and other companies that collect and resell government information, often after reorganizing or repackaging the information, such as census data or contract reports.

The most important concern is that agencies may try in the future to unfairly limit or charge for some portions of especially valuable databases, such as census information, said one House staff member.

In September, the congressional Joint Committee on Printing will introduce legislation to pressure agencies to give electronic copies of their publications to the Congress' Superintendent of Documents, said Peterson. In turn, the Superintendent of Documents will take over the task of distributing free copies of the reports to the 1,400 Federal Depository Libraries that are supposed to get a copy of all government documents, said Peterson. The superintendent would also offer online copies of government reports to industry and the public, said Peterson. The law likely will be co-sponsored by Rep. William Thomas, R-Calif., and Sen. John Warner, R-Va., the chairman and vice chairman, respectively, of the Joint Committee on Printing, he said.


House photo
Rep. Bill Thomas

If the law passes, it should curb data selling by federal agencies and help companies acquire and resell government data, said Duncan.

Unless they can carefully justify their efforts, agencies are not allowed to copyright their data, should not compete with the private sector and usually must make electronic copies of their unclassified data available to anyone who asks, according to a 1996 update to the Freedom of Information Act and a 1995 amendment to the Paperwork Reduction Act.

Government agencies are allowed to charge citizens and companies for the cost of reproducing their reports for distribution. For example, the Bethesda, Md.-based National Library of Medicine offers free access via the World Wide Web to its online bibliography of 9 million medical journal articles, while also charging license fees of up to $16,000 per year to 52 companies that resell the electronic data.

But agencies have restricted their data by failing to send copies to the 1,400 Federal Depository Libraries around the country and by cutting deals with individual companies, said Duncan and other industry critics.


Senate photo
Sen. John Warner

For example, the federally funded Bethesda, Md.-based National Cancer Institute in January handed over its Journal of the National Cancer Institute to the nonprofit subsidiary of Oxford University Press U.S.A., based in Cary, N.C. "The taxpayer is not going to be paying for it anymore. ... All costs are being transferred to Oxford," said Julianne Chappell, editor of the taxpayer-funded journal, which prints articles submitted by U.S. and foreign cancer researchers. To keep the journal up to date, it must be improved and put online, she said. "The government is shrinking ... [and] there is no reason why taxpayer money should be put into this journal," she said.

But because Oxford will charge subscription fees, "they are denying public access to the journal. ... We are going to redress that," said Peterson, who will soon release a legal opinion criticizing the deal.

Industry officials also complain about the Springfield, Va.-based National Technical Information Service, which is allowed by a 1950 law to cover its operating costs by charging customers for the cost of storing and copying data. In recent years, the NTIS has moved into new areas of business, including the maintenance of Web pages under contracts from other agencies, and the reselling of news articles and transcripts of radio reports prepared by foreign companies.

The news service, dubbed World News Connection, was launched with a $400,000 grant from the General Services Administration, and offers subscribers articles that have been translated into English by the Foreign Broadcast Information Service, which is funded by the Central Intelligence Agency and the National Security Agency, based in Fort Meade, Md. With fees from subscribers, the NTIS pays the foreign companies a royalty every time one of their articles is viewed online.

"We really don't do anything that would be directly in competition with a private sector firm. ... It is all in an attempt to keep costs contained, and to keep things operating smoothly and as efficient as possible," said NTIS Director Donald Johnson.

But "the NTIS is competing with our business," said Patrick Jeffery, a spokesman for New Canaan, Conn.-based NewsBank Inc., which sells compact discs storing translations of foreign news stories. The agencies "are under pressure to break even. ... [But] to comply with one mandate, they may have a problem with another" that bans competition with the private sector, Jeffery said.

The federal agencies are being pressed by the White House to cut costs and release more information to the public via the Internet, said Duncan. "The only way they can do it is by making money [from sales of data] ... because [the White House] is not pushing to get Congress to give more money," he said.

Also, the White House's Office of Management and Budget has failed to force the agencies to release their data and reports in an easily understood fashion, argues Patrice McDermott, information-policy analyst at OMB Watch, a government watchdog group. "They don't push ... to make sure that this stuff gets cataloged," she said. For example, OMB has failed to ensure that agencies file their publications in an emerging online research service, dubbed the Government Information Location Service, said McDermott. The free service was scheduled to become operational in January.


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