Follow Us

The Price of Access

by

An article in Monday’s New York Times announced that Bloomberg LP is expanding their DC publishing work, and investing heavily in their “Bloomberg Government” service. This commercial service takes their established financial information reporting model and applies it to government information, charging $5700 per year for access. Collecting, analyzing, and re-presenting government information so comprehensively is expensive, and the price tag reflects that challenge.

This pricetag also represents the enormous demand for influence over the government. Even though most people can’t afford subscriptions that cost thousands of dollars a year, some information is extraordinarily valuable. The slightest advantage in anticipating a pending regulation or a legislative markup can mean billions of dollars later. The same notion launched the original Bloomberg Terminal service for finance information, which is now standard fare for many finance professionals, and costs (apparently) $1,500 per month.

Insofar as these services are worth the price of admission, they reinforce disparities in privilege and access.

Even though collecting information comprehensively from the government is onerous, securing access to it worth the expense for many who can afford it.

The problem with these services, though, is their exclusiveness. If these services’ advertising pitches are to be believed, then there’s a serious advocacy advantage for sale to those who can afford it. In the words of the “Bloomberg Government” promotional video -- they’re changing the “game” and allowing you to get “ahead.”

The Sunlight Foundation exists because we want everyone to get ahead, and that we all stand to benefit from real-time, online access to government information.That’s why we’ve built sites like TransparencyData, InfluenceExplorer, Poligraft, or Real Time Congress, and that’s why we’ve supported efforts like OpenSecrets, OpenCongress, and FedSpending.org. Some of our work replicates services also offered through others' exclusive pay-services, and some of it is available only through the services we provide (like Party Time), but they all share the same goal: broad public access to government information.

If those with money are the only ones that have game-changing access to the workings of government, then our vital legislative and regulatory processes become skewed in their favor. Insofar as these services are worth the price of admission, they reinforce disparities in privilege and access.

This criticism is not unique to Bloomberg LP. The control and sale of information about government have always flourished -- West, Lexis, CQ, National Journal, and even the Congressional Globe all come to mind. But that doesn’t mean that we have to accept as inevitable a two-tiered system for working with the government. That also doesn’t mean that we begrudge commercial publishers their work. Business is business, and commercial publishers provide extremely useful services, many of which Sunlight even subscribes to.

But a world where expensive commercial services dominate public access is one we should avoid. Our government already relies heavily on third parties just to access their own information. The GAO uses West to access its own legislative histories, Congress still doesn't provide useful central access to committee schedules, and commercial legal publishers completely eclipse services provided by the courts.  When government officials accept cost-prohibitive information services as the norm for even basic transparency, then they’re far less likely to invest in the public facing alternatives that can serve everyone.

The House (Rule XV) explicitly permits Member offices to accept free subscriptions to news sources -- not just daily newspapers, but also expensive subscriptions like the Bloomberg service, routinely offered for free or at deep discounts. If these information gifts are to be accepted by Member offices, then we need to also understand the biases that over-reliance on exclusive information sources can create.

In the long run, expensive commercial services may help transparency enormously, since showing what is possible can be an enormous motivator for everyone. We should also remember, though, that privileged access can have a very high price, and not just for those who can afford to pay.