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Keeping GPO's Data Free

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The Government Printing Office's data portal, FDSys, is a major pillar of US government transparency and access to information. Information from all three branches of government is distributed freely and on tremendous scale, often in machine-readable form. They provide the official text of all bills in Congress. They provide the official source of data on all regulatory activity, the Federal Register. They are trying to grow into an official source for federal court opinions. They're adding new things all the time.

Anyone who gets their hands dirty with FDSys can come up with a list of recommendations for improvement, but their existence and overall output is hugely important and increasingly vital. They also set a strong precedent for how to balance the need for authentication with the need to make data easily consumable by third parties, by following the simple approach of providing digests that can be checked when needed.

The public needs the information in FDSys, and we need it to be free.

So you can forgive me for spitting out my drink upon reading that among the recommendations in the National Academy of Public Administration's audit of GPO was that GPO should start charging citizens for the right to download this information.

Given the unique role of FDsys in providing permanent public access to authentic government information, it is imperative for GPO to secure long-term, consistent funding for FDsys through cost recovery and/or appropriation to ensure current and future access to government information. ...

Rather than charge a publication price, GPO could explore charging a small user fee to recoup the cost of providing access to government information on FDsys, or allowing users to view documents for free, and charging for document downloads.

NAPA cites the failed attempt to charge for an earlier GPO Access program, but says "the problem" was payment processing fees, and mentions public outcry as an afterthought:

When GPO Access was launched, GPO charged users for access to digital content. The problem was that the administrative costs of collecting payments were higher than what GPO could charge. Also, there was resistance from public interest groups and other stakeholders.

NAPA goes on to make a very poor argument that because people don't mind paying to enter national parks anymore, they won't mind suddenly having to pay to download government information. This is an argument they are advancing in 2013.

Still, this report is worth taking seriously. The report was requested by Congress, it covers a wide range of issues, and GPO has already held it up as a validation of their mission.

What's clear is that on the specific issue of whether it's acceptable to charge for access to fundamental government information, the answer that's obvious to citizens and advocates on the outside — No! — is much murkier among the various pieces of the US government.

The concern NAPA expresses is that the information in FDSys is too important to be tied to the whims of Congressional appropriators. This is definitely a concern; James Jacobs has already written eloquently about the repeated historical attempts to defund or privatize the distribution of the information GPO is reponsible for. NAPA describes user fees as a way to guarantee that this information will stay available.

However, the solution can't be to ask citizens to pay access fees. There's no such thing as a nominal fee for government information this fundamental. Public services like GovTrack.us, OpenCongress, Scout, and even other government initiatives like FederalRegister.gov, can only exist by first obtaining entire datasets — millions of pages — from FDSys. Imposing access fees for FDSys seriously reduces transparency, crushes innovation and experimentation, and hampers research and analysis.

Instead, the data in FDSys must come to be viewed by everyone — from NAPA to Congress — for what it is: part of the lifeblood of information in the United States. It must remain free.