The influential Committee on House Administration released a letter yesterday that endorsed the principle that “the documents of our democracy should be available to all Americans electronically, in perpetuity, and for free.” The letter, signed by every member of the committee, rejected a recommendation made in a flawed report issued by the National Academy of Public Administration, which had called for the Government Printing Office to consider charging “end uses” for online access to government documents made available through the online portal FDsys.
The Committee on House Administration oversees GPO, and the letter is a clear signal as to how GPO should proceed. The letter is also another example of the Committee’s deepening emphasis on making the government transparent and accessible.
The NAPA report was requested by Congress as part of a long-range operational review of GPO. Unfortunately, despite dozens of interviews and a ten-month study, NAPA failed to contact key “end-users” who are responsible for republishing and widely disseminating public information, such as GovTrack.us, WashingtonWatch.com, the Sunlight Foundation, the Center for Effective Government, the Internet Archive, Public.Resource.Org, and the Legal Information Institute. These organizations are leaders in disseminating government-held information online to the public at no cost, and NAPA would have done well to learn from their expertise and see whether it could be applied to GPO.
Instead, NAPA’s report misstated and omitted parts of the history regarding imposing fees on public access to electronic information. It omitted a discussion of how third parties, like the non-profits identified above, further GPO’s mission to “produce, protect, preserve, and distribute documents of our democracy.” It failed to examine how charging end users for electronic access would destroy the ability of non-profit organizations to obtain and re-transmit the information, thereby placing greater burdens on GPO to fill the gap and weakening public access to crucial information.
We applaud the Committee on House Administration’s continued support for public access to governmental information. While it is unknown whether the letter has broader applicability to data being sold by GPO outside of FDsys, such as that listed here, it is important that information on FDsys remain available to the public at no cost, a position affirmed by the Committee.