CFP'92 - For Sale : Government Information
March 19, 1992
Panel: Dwight Morris, Los Angeles Times Washington Bureau
Chair: George Trubow, John Marshall Law School
Ken Allen, Information Industry Association
Maurice Freedman, American Library Association
Evan Hendricks, Privacy Times
Fred Weingarten, Computing Research Association
Franklin S. Reeder, Office of Management and Budget
Costas Toregas, Public Technology, Inc.
Robert R. Belair, Kirkpatrick and Lockhart
TRUBOW: Good morning. As indicated by your chairman, my real life capacity is a member of the faculty at the John Marshall Law School in Chicago and a director at our center for Informatics Law. Today, I am going to be playing just a little different role in connection with my newly-appointed position as head of the information office in a federal executive department. The quandary facing me today in my role is that I have the responsibility of examining my information policy with respect to the release of information pursuant to the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). All of us, I think, in this elite group of insiders in terms of what's happening in the information environment today, recognize that information is available in quality and quantity never before thought possible -- easy to collect and process, manipulate and disseminate.
Now the context of our program today deals with requests under FOIA where we have already crossed an important preliminary threshold, and that is whether or not the information ought to be available. I'm making this point to emphasize the fact that part of our responsibility today is not to talk about whether information should be available. We're talking about data that presumably the federal government can make available to you without any applications of the exclusions under the Freedom of Information Act. Now this is not to minimize that, and in my role as Moderator, I'm unable to give you a speech on the necessity of protecting individual privacy, and how the privacy constraint needs to be carefully examined in terms of deciding what information will be made available in the first place. There may even be proprietary interests on the part of the private sector, as well as government, in connection with some of the information, in terms of whether it ought to be made available, but we're going to be dealing with the question of under what circumstances should it be made available.
As the head of the department, I'm concerned about the fact that OMB has just let me know that I'm going to have some severe budgetary constraints this next fiscal year. I'm thinking that one way I may be able to ease my problems is to find some new revenue sources with respect to the provision of information available to me. In that way, OMB will stay off my back, I'll be able to provide plenty of services to the people and have the staff and equipment necessary to get it done.
The focal point for our discussion today is the scenario. What I'm going to do, first of all, is let each of the panel, which is our advisory committee, introduce themselves before I start the meeting. Can we begin here, please?
MORRIS: My name is Dwight Morris and I am with the Los Angeles Times Washington Bureau. My responsibility there is, for the lack of a better term, data-based journalism. My job is to acquire government data, analyze it, and turn it into news stories.
ALLEN: My name is Ken Allen, Senior Vice President of the Information Industry Association, which is about 650 companies involved in the creation, distribution, and use of information, products, services, and technologies.
FREEDMAN: I'm Maurice Freedman. I'm chair of the American Library Association Coordinating Committee on Access of Information. I'm a substitute for Patricia Glass Schuman, who is president of the Association and who is suffering from exhaustion and a bad cold, and couldn't be here. My full-time job, for which I am paid a salary, is Director of the Westchester Public Library System in New York state.
HENDRICKS: I'm Evan Hendricks, Editor and Publisher of the Privacy Times newsletter and also chairman of the newly-formed U.S. Privacy Council.
WEINGARTEN: I'm Rick Weingarten. Currently, I'm executive director of the Computing Research Association. In a previous incarnation, for about ten years I was program manager of communications and information technologies at the Congressional Office of Technology Assessment.
REEDER: Good morning, I'm Frank Reeder, deputy assistant director for general management at the Office of Management and Budget. In an earlier life, I had some responsibility for information policy at OMB.
TOREGAS: Good morning for me as well. My name is Costas Toregas. I'm president of Public Technology, Inc., which is a not-for- profit organization owned by the cities and counties of the United States and Canada. I bring the perspective of the role that local governments are being asked to play, both in shepherding information resources and assets at the local level, and then coordinating that with private industry and central government.
BELAIR: I'm Bob Belair. I'm a lawyer here in town and most of my practice involves privacy and Freedom of Information Act matters.
TRUBOW: Good morning, advisory panel. Thank you for being here. I've got a lot of problems that I'm dealing with, and in the memo I sent to you I explained to you what the focal point would be. I want you to feel free to raise other issues which you think I should be aware of. You can tell that I had an accord with Sunshine Laws and Open Meetings Acts. I've let the public know that we are having this advisory council meeting today and we have a larger number than usual here. (laughter) I'm going to depart from our normal policy, and after we have had the chance to iron out some of these issues, I'm going to let some of them put questions to us later on.
First of all, I'd like you folks to give me some help with this problem. Let me begin by asking Dr. WEINGARTEN: from the standpoint of the research community, I've been looking at a request from this hapless Mr. Smith. What sort of assistance should I give him in making this information available to him?
WEINGARTEN: Well, I think to put it in some sense, overly concisely, it's the government's duty to inform, but I don't see that it's the government's duty to act as a research assistant for every graduate student in the country. I find this particular application without a lot of merit. It's hard for me to believe that a graduate student, a Ph.D. candidate in economics who wants to do quantitative research, is coming to the government claiming computer illiteracy as a reason for asking the government to do further work for him. That he ought to have access to the database I think is fine, but his argument that otherwise he would have to spend hours of effort to somehow analyze it and arrange it in the form he wants strikes me as what graduate students are supposed to do, as part of learning their craft. I realize there are deeper policy questions that may extend from this. I'm not trying to make a general case for all citizens, or all agency databases, but I think in this particular case we have an application from somebody who ought to be well-qualified and equipped to handle the data himself.
TRUBOW: All right, so I don't have to answer this request, because he doesn't know how to use our information system.
BELAIR: I'll get us off on the right foot by disagreeing. (laughter) I think really what we are talking about here is choice of format. That's one of the issues that this raises, and of course it has been a hot issue. It has been an issue in the Congress; it has been an issue in the courts. I think you must start with the premise that we've got an act in the Freedom of Information Act that is failing -- it's in terrible shape -- absolutely failing to do what it's supposed to do, complicated in a lot of ways. One of them, of course, is that it's bedeviled by this notion of access to electronic records. A choice of format is one of the issues that comes out of that; reprogramming is another issue -- you've got both those things here. And my own view is that except in cases where an agency can establish that it's really got something that is burdensome ..., and I don't know if with the facts that we have before us that this agency could establish that. We may have a hapless requester. He is an economist -- that certainly counts against him. (laughter)
TRUBOW: I'd like to just give him the tape and say, "Have at it."
BELAIR: No, we should give him a choice of format, in my view. I see no reason not to. After all, the goal of the Freedom of Information Act is to get the information out there. If we have to do a little bit of reprogramming, that's part of the search function. We ought to do that, too.
TOREGAS: Maybe then if we do decide to give Mr. Smith here access in the choice that he wants, we ought to pitch in the debate about costs and price. I see this as an issue between collectively or individually paying for what we want. There is no free lunch in this country. We have to make a choice whether Mr. John Smith is to be supported collectively through all of us, or individually through his efforts. Clearly, if he wants to get a doctorate in economics -- I think it's an admirable goal -- he has to then move forward and achieve that goal. There are many other goals in society and the choice that I would give to you in the audience, and to you, Mr. Head of the Information Office, is that we have to make a decision between collectively or individually financing the research, the choice of format, etc.
If I can put a different kind of spin on it, I would say that what we're confronted with here is a bulging abuse of freedom of information. I find it hard to believe that when we sit down to define freedom of information, we mean a graduate student coming up. Maybe we mean everything under the sun, but we have to be precise. We have to begin to insert precision in our discussions. I would think that we need to re-examine the vocabulary that we have as owners for information sharing and information access -- it's heavy and it brings all sorts of crazy ideas from 30 years of an exploding technology that is not yet reflected in our legislative environment. So, in my mind, it's costly to the individual or to society as a whole, and it's also -- and we haven't really touched it yet -- the issue of value. What value do we attach to various information avenues? So those are the three concepts that I would throw to you, Mr. Chairman.
TRUBOW: Well, Evan, do you want to help me with this?
HENDRICKS: Well, yes. I'm concerned, because as a member of the Department of Commerce advisory staff, I'm first concerned with the interests of the Department of Commerce. Basically, if this person is simply a lowly graduate student (laughter), I don't think we have to worry too much about whatever he wants. He obviously has an ambitious request, but if he is by himself, I think we can put him off. (laughter) But I'm concerned if he has an attorney and really wants to exercise his rights. Under the Freedom of Information Act, we could run into the same kind of problems that Mr. Belair mentioned.
BELAIR: I've already sent him my card. (laughter)
HENDRICKS: We'll get to conflict of interests later (laughter), don't worry about that. Basically, the purpose of FOIA is to maximize disclosure, and let's face it, we need as much independent analysis of our national economic condition as we can get. And if this guy is going to offer it, first of all, a judge might say that's in the public interest. He could say it could be disseminated. He could look at the specific facts in this case and decide that, first of all, the software itself is an agency record available to the public. He could decide that pushing the buttons on computers is not that much different than pushing the buttons on a copying machine, and therefore it would not be that burdensome for the agency to produce this information and turn out the paper necessary. He also might say that if we grant this request this one time to this individual, that information will already be together for those people who want to get it later. So, I'm concerned that if we don't hone together the facts of this case and prepare ourselves for the possibility that this could end up before a federal judge, we could lose badly and look bad.
TRUBOW: Well, how about this, here's something that I've been thinking about.....
FREEDMAN: Can I respond?
FREEDMAN: There are two issues here, one is a very immediate one. Regardless of how outrageous the request seems, is this a request for programmimg and service that could be seen as generic, or a lot of people asking for the same kind of access, the same kind of special code? And I would think, from a user's standpoint, any service agency would try to say, "Is this larger than this one particular person?" And three days of programming for something that would benefit a tremendous breadth of users is well worth doing. But a special, on-demand, throwaway custom code would certainly be beyond the limits of any reasonable agency in terms of a response. I think a larger thing is going on in Washington now that very much has relevance to this. There are two bills -- the Improvement of Information Access Act and the GPO Window Act -- that would have an impact on this person and perhaps make available the data that he needs through a depository library for free, or at a reasonable cost through some kind of computer searching. What these two acts do is make available at incremental costs all of the electronic databases identified within the context of these acts by the government, and make available through the GPO two pieces -- the databases, and software that allows you to access them. These two things would, I think, go a long way toward meeting this person's need and getting him away from litigation.
TRUBOW: You're suggesting a strategy that really appeals to me, and it's this: what I'd like to do is unload this whole problem in the first place, because I get these requests, I've got to reprogram, I've got to reformat. What I'd like to do is hand this off to someone else, as you are suggesting. Now I've been talking to Ken Allen about this, and what I'd like to do is ... I'd like to, say for about a half million a year, I'd like to license his outfit to take care of these requests, give him an exclusive license to distribute this. And then I'm going to take the position, whatever I've got I'll make available -- talk to Ken about it. Ken, will you help me out and talk about that?
ALLEN: George, I'm going to find myself in the strange position of saying no. If you want to hire one of my companies, as a contractor, to act in your behalf as an agent, we might be willing to do that if it is a competitive process. But if you want to give a single company exclusive rights to your information, to sell it and to make money, we think that's a bad idea. We think that the government should be providing equal access at marginal costs to everybody. So, we're going to have to say no, George. We don't want that exclusive right.
TRUBOW: Tell me a little more -- what do you mean about this contract?
ALLEN: Well, if you want to enter into a contract, as you would enter into a contract with an outside party for any other service where the contractor becomes an agent of the government, and acts as an agent or an instrument of the government, that's one thing. That operates under the procurement laws. But if you want to just enter into a licensing agreement with somebody and give them an exclusive right to it, apart from the contractor, well, that's not a very good idea, George, because at some point you're going to have to restrict the public's access to that information. As a contractor, anybody could come in and would have the same equal rights of access. The Freedom of Information Act, and all the other requirements, would apply in that case. But as a licensee none of that would apply.
TRUBOW: Well, gosh, here's the problem I'm bumping into on this license bit, Ken, because I was talking to one of the staff members about this, when I was first pursuing the notion of just giving him the magnetic tape. My guy said, "Well, that's OK, I'll be glad to send him a copy of the magnetic tape. But that's not going to do him much good, because he doesn't have the software to access it." And he said the software that we are using we got from the commercial environment -- we got it from the private sector to develop this program and we can't give him that. And I said that sounds fair to me -- I'll give him the magnetic tape and we'll keep the software. But I'm going to have to license that software, I guess, if we are to even enter into a contract with the information, aren't I?
ALLEN: You may well have to, George, but if you had a really smart contracting officer when they negotiated that original contract, he would have either stocked commercial software that was in the market and was compatible with everything else, or he would have acquired licensing agreements that would have permitted him to distribute the software with the tape. The fact that he didn't suggests that your contracting officer didn't think far enough ahead as to how that information would be used.
TRUBOW: You may have solved all my problems, then, and also gotten rid of a no-good contracting officer. (laughter) Frank, how about this?
REEDER: I'd like to pick up on Ken's point, because I think it's a terribly important one, and that is: choice of format becomes really irrelevant if, in fact, we design databases in a way that they are unusable in raw form. I think that suggests that you and the management of your operation need to go back and re-examine some of the databases you maintain in which there is public interest to assure that the form in which they're maintained, as Ken suggested, is compatible with generally available software packages, so that individuals do not have to incur the additional burden of acquiring software or knowledge of some specialized techniques. I guess the de facto standard in the spreadsheet world would be Lotus, even though there are many, many packages that read those kinds of databases. It seems to me the FOIA was based on the premise that the page of paper was a universally accessible medium; that there was no intermediate technology required; and therefore, access to a governmental record was tantamount to access of the information.
I'm troubled by the notion that unless we assume some of the burden for making the information truly accessible, we are, in fact, creating an enormous potential for mischief by effectively, if not in fact, enciphering information so that it is inaccessible. In the instance of a colleague who spoke earlier, I think he is on the right track, and that is that we need to look at the question of whether the additional effort required to make the information accessible for this particular user is unique to his requirements. If so, I think we get to the cost question of whether one should socialize that cost or require him to bear it individually. Or whether, in fact, we have an instance here of some kind of a generic tool that might be made available after the fact. I suggest that you, in the management of your information operation, might wish to go back and re-examine those databases that you set up, perhaps with all the best intentions, for a limited audience, and look at the question of whether there is a broader demand or broader need for that information.
TRUBOW: Well, let me follow up with you on this, because this might be a little bit of revenue for me. I sense that there is a real economic value out there in the private sector for some of this stuff, because frankly, although this guy says he's not much on computers, I think he is onto something in the particular configuration of data that he wants. What I'd like to do is tell this kid that to the extent that we give him this stuff, he can't use it for any other purpose other than his thesis, because I think that I can put some higher prices on this for the private sector. I believe this stuff can be processed in the private sector and marketed at a pretty good fee. I can get some operating funds back that way. How about that?
WEINGARTEN: Then I would invite you to leave the agency, form a company, and join Mr. Allen's association. That's not the job of government. (laughter)
ALLEN: I do have an application right here. (laughter)
WEINGARTEN: All right, government information is, to my mind, public information unless there is some reason to withhold it. A government agency has absolutely no business to withhold it, unless it's proprietary.
TRUBOW: Oh, I'm going to make it public. It's just that I feel if the private sector will pay for it, then they ought to. I'm willing to help this kid. Costas, how about that?
TOREGAS: I have a lot of friends, Mr. Chairman, other than state and local government, that are basically enjoying the same argument with perhaps a slightly different viewpoint. Being so close to the customer in both private and public sector space today, under the Total Quality Management concept that all of us seem to accept as very trendy, being close to the customer, allowing the customer to interact and to impact on the business at hand, whether I'm General Motors or a particular county commission, I want to make sure that my customer has a way to reach me. That is, indeed, the argument of access. Now the question is, how can we simplify, or make access direct and easy? I like very much the idea that information is almost being locked up if we make accessing the technology to that information difficult or expensive to get. Therefore, the argument becomes how do we (or how do you as the federal government) develop empowering technologies to access information in a direct way. How do you fund that? I would suggest that funding accessing technologies that empower the individual on the street to reach that information a little bit more easily is a very worthwhile goal.
One of my suggestions to your commission would be to see if you can develop some kind of cost principles that would permit you to recover the cost of the new developments in the new accessing technologies. And I agree very much with one of the former speakers that the way we developed databases in years past was not with the viewpoint of access in mind. They were developed for very singular and simple purposes: do some kind of a chart, do some kind of a graph for the minister, for the secretary. Well, today information has much more powerful uses for the individual, as well as society collectively. So, being able to develop accessing technology both at the private and the public levels becomes a very high priority. I would suggest that your agency should, in fact, not very quickly leave the notion of charging for the information in a way that would permit you to improve and increase the accessibility of that information.
TRUBOW: I like that tack. How about that, Frank?
REEDER: I would agree, and I'd like to return to your earlier point, because like Ken Allen, I find myself in the unnatural position of arguing against what would appear to be the normal instincts of the institution from which I come. In this case, it is increasing public revenue...
TRUBOW: This is on the record, Frank.
REEDER: In that case, my name is Ken Allen. (laughter)
ALLEN: Wait until I talk. Do you have your social security number? (laughter)
REEDER: In point of fact, governments are increasingly turning to information activities as revenue sources. It's natural -- we've seen this for years, obviously, in the sales by state agencies of drivers' licensing and automobile registration files and the like. It's terribly tempting.
I would argue that this is a troublesome trend for at least two reasons: one is that it in fact becomes an impediment to access and puts the public official -- often an unelected public official -- in the position of having to make judgments as to whose use has some social purpose and whose use is purely commercial. The distinction, I think, can always be made on the basis of characteristics of the institution making the request.
Second, from my perspective, looking purely at the management of public institutions, this trend can create some very distorted incentives in the agency -- to become the agency that does not serve its clients but rather generates revenues. This can result in enormous distortion of the role of public agencies as they become more entrepreneurial. I happen to be one of the folks who isn't enamored by the notion of an entrepreneurial public sector.
ALLEN: Mr. Trubow, I find this idea to be very disturbing. I'm going to recommend that the advisory committee ask SIG to investigate the information management procedures in your office. (laughter)
For a number of reasons, I agree with Mr. Reeder that one of the problems is that it's going to distort the whole incentive system by which you operate. I suspect that if you could produce revenue and reduce the amount of cost to fund your office, that might look pretty good on your performance evaluation. Soon the graduate student and others who are asking for things that you need to appropriate the dollars for are no longer going to get the same attention as those revenue-generating activities.
The second problem as a citizen is that the more you finance outside of your appropriation process, the more you will be able to elude many of the basic checks and balances that we have on government activities, and that is to make you go through that appropriations process and ask for money so that we can determine whether or not what you are doing is right.
But the other two problems that I have about this are even more fundamental. If we let you do what you want to do, you're going to have to ask people who they are, and why they want that information. You're going to have to maintain an accounting system with the names of the people who want your information and how they use it. But perhaps most distressing is, in order to do what you want to do, you're going to have to assert ownership over that information. You're going to have to control how I or any other member of the public will use that information. You're going to have to prohibit that graduate student from reselling it, as you said yourself, or giving it away. And that's a violation -- an antithesis of everything that the Congress and the Legislature has said for 200 years: that we will not let the federal government assert any kind of ownership over information. Federal government information is in the public domain -- how the public uses it is their business. You have no right to control it and no right to ask who they are or why they want it.
TRUBOW: Well, I think we need to re-examine that policy, because I am running into serious budgetary constraints and I can't provide the information. I want to give it to the people, but I need the revenue. Bob Belair?
BELAIR: Thank you. Let me just step out of the role for a second and talk as an attorney who does a lot of FOIA work. There's a notion right now under the existing 1986 fee schedule that FOIA is inexpensive, that it is not a revenue source. And of course, under the existing law, agencies can charge for search time, duplication time, and review time. Charges are supposed to be based on incremental costs or actual costs. But I've got to tell you that it is not uncommon to see charges from agencies in the two to three to four thousand dollar range for processing requests. These charges are now more than the lawyers' charges. That's a terrible thing....terrible. (laughter) It's true, though. It's not uncommon. That is already a burden. It's dismaying to think about using the dissemination of information as a revenue source. I might point out to that our friends over at the Federal Maritime Commission who have been looking at the dissemination of tariff information as a revenue source have been getting into all kinds of political trouble.
TRUBOW: Well, I want to avoid their trouble, but I want to make the money because, Bob, the point is this: you're talking about those $3000 and $4000 fees -- I'm not making those things up -- and that doesn't anywhere near represent the amount that I'd have to recapture to develop new information services and to be a real service to the people. That's a drop in the bucket, and I need that income somehow.
MORRIS: In the real world we're really not talking about $3000 and $4000 fees in many cases. Colleagues, friends in Michigan, were confronted with the desire to get a hold of drivers' license records in Michigan, and they were told that there was a $5-per- record charge. Now $5 doesn't sound like a lot of money, but in this case you were talking about more than a million driver's license records, so that the bill, if they were going to have to pay, was more than $5 million and there was no negotiation. We're not talking about $2000 and $3000 fees, for the most part.
The other thing that we're not talking about is that the scenario here implies at least that we at the Commerce Department want to actually give this data up. Most of the agencies that I deal with think the Freedom of Information Act is a joke. I had an Air Force officer tell me that the Freedom of Information Act was put into place to obscure information, not to reveal it. And if I really wanted the information that I was looking for, I should call one of the following three people and just ask them for it. The Freedom of Information request is an absolute last resort, because it's a waste of time, frankly. I would agree with the gentleman who said earlier that there is some responsibility on this graduate student's part to assume some knowledge required to access this information. I know for a fact that if this scenario were given to any Freedom of Information officer in this town, it would send them into gales of laughter. It simply would not be anything that any government agency in this town would deal with.
TRUBOW: I can reject this one anyway. Now I appreciate what you said about the bucks, Dwight, and I've got great sympathy for the press, but I also recognize you carp at me because I want to charge you for this, then you sell your papers in which you put that information. You sell that stuff and expect me to dump it out and charge the taxpayers and somehow not recoup that.
MORRIS: Actually, I'm one of the few people who doesn't. I don't mind if there are reasonable charges. You want to give me a data tape, a flat ASCII file with a database that has been built in a way that I can't use it? Fine, because I have the technology available to me to deal with that data. You want to charge me a reasonable price for it -- I pay reasonable prices all the time. The problem is that what is a reasonable price to me isn't necessarily a reasonable price to other people. If the Freedom of Information Act is truly to disseminate information, then the people who cannot afford it have to be able to get the information, as well as the people who can afford it. I can afford it. I pay for it all the time.
TRUBOW: Well, look. Ken was just harping at me a minute ago, because, gosh, you're going to have to keep track of who's asked and make distinctions. I said "absolutely" because they have already paid me a reasonable fee.
MORRIS: They already do. I get at least one marketing call a week from someone who has gone over to a federal agency, has FOIA-ed their FOIA file to see who's FOIA-ed the agency and then they come and sell me software, because I FOIA-ed the agency. That happens at least once a week, so the names are kept in FOIAs. (laughter)
FREEDMAN: Can I respond to the fundamental issue that you were getting at there? Your agency is going broke and you want to sell off the data and give a license to it so your agency can get some revenue and...
TRUBOW: You don't have to say that so ineloquently. (laughter)
FREEDMAN: Well, as a public librarian there's a fundamental right to know, and we don't believe -- as the American Library Association or as librarians on the service lines -- that there should be any barriers to access. And it's not that information is free at the library. Taxpayers pay a hell of a lot of money to open the doors and keep the doors open at the library. You're in effect asking the taxpayers to pay all kinds of times. They paid for your salaries so you can sell off the information that they paid for you to collect. Then you want them to pay again to some exclusive licensee to sell information that they paid for and paid your salary to program and all the rest of it. I wish I was more articulate about GPO Window and the improvement of the Information Access Act, but what these things are doing is making sure that the databases that are scattered all over the government agencies will be available through a single source -- in effect, an electronic GPO Window -- and will be available free of charge at depository libraries, a system of libraries set up all over the country. Individuals, organizations, and commercial firms can buy that information and those electronic databases, add whatever value they choose, and remarket them as they choose. I think the government has to get back in touch with its responsibility to the citizens who create the government, pay for the government, and demand -- and have every right to demand -- access to that government so they can be an informed democracy. The implicit privatization for profit, for reduced costs, flies in the face of the Jeffersonian tradition, and I, for one, demur.
HENDRICKS: Well, George, we've been friends for a long time, and I'd like to find a way for you to make money off this information, if there is a way, and head off that IG investigation. If you go to Congress and ask them for an amendment to our copyright law, like they have in Canada, we can have a Crown Copyright, or the government can copyright information. Then it can really control how information is used and we can have exclusive contracts, revolving doors, and the whole idea works.
TRUBOW: That's a super idea. (laughter)
HENDRICKS: Exactly! Now, if we have to stick to our American tradition of openness and access to government information, I think that we really need to start to use technology to help people. People make technology out to be a bogie man in so many cases, but there are so many ways that technology can help people. Alan Westin did a study for the Reference Point library system, where he gave examples of libraries that had online systems to government databases. I think if we really want to increase access to government information and remove the problem of the middleman and the government's ability -- or the burden on them -- to disseminate information, we need to create a system where public libraries have systems for citizens to go into to go through the public databases and get the information they need.
Now there's a caveat to this. For instance, this cannot apply to systems with personal information on people, because that could result in invasion of privacy. This could only be for the kind of systems that are described here.
I think that public information is public information. Let's take the example of driver's license information: this is personal information that gives your home address, your height, your weight, your vision, and the purpose of it is for driving. Now I think that driving is a privilege, and that there should be a presumption of public access of that information. So, going back to Alan Westin -- I'm not doing a commercial for you today, Alan -- but I really liked your article in Mobius. In No. 7, in "Predicting What is Going to Happen in the Future," he said, "Rules governing public access to government-created public records will be significantly revised to limit wholesale purchase and unauthorized usage of public vendor personal data by the commercial and nonprofit sectors." So... I want libraries to have online access to government databases without personal information, but when there are things like driver's license databases, I think we need to build in due process procedures that (1) would allow the data subject to protect the privacy of his home address; (2) if the government licensing agency is already charging you for your driver's license, they have to obtain your informed consent to sell your information. That means that they will have to offer you a discount on your licensing fee to get you to sign off on it; and (3) that when someone does access your personal information held in these government databases like that, then they have to send you a notice that they are doing it, so that way you know who is looking at your information.
TRUBOW: I'd like to pursue with you for just a minute this copyright issue that you raise here.
HENDRICKS: That's where the money is, George. (laughter)
TRUBOW: One of my programmers, when we were wrestling with this request from the student, said to me, "You know, he is onto something very interesting here in some economic analysis." And he said, "If you give me three or four weeks, I can put together a way to do some analysis on the data that we've got to process this. Then I can turn out a real gold mine of information. But what we've got to be able to do is to protect our software in that processing technique." Now I've been talking about seeing if I could get some copyrights to protect that, because my notion is, on behalf of the taxpayers, I've got to try to recoup that investment. Frank?
REEDER: I think that this returns to the point that Ken made earlier and the reason why for example, under current federal law and I think for very good reason, even proceeds of FOIA requests are not available to the agencies for expenditures. So that, in fact, puts a further constraint on, shall we say, the desire to grow businesses -- information businesses -- in federal entities. It seems to me terribly critical that the process of deciding the extent to which you grow a business inside the Department of Commerce ought to be subject to public and Congressional scrutiny. And I expect my colleague one seat down from the end of the table will jump in and discuss a bit how, if we in fact meet the objective that I suggested earlier of assuring that information is reasonably accessible, others -- both the press and other parts of the for-profit industry -- will leap in and create for the marketplace the kinds of value-added products that you described that you'd like to develop in the public sector.
TRUBOW: Well, except I've got a natural advantage, because I'm doing a lot of surveys already into some economic data. This programmer who was discussing this question with me said, "Hey, look, you know, at the next survey. If we just ask a few more questions, and pick up some fields of data that we're not now getting, we can really develop some dynamite new information." Again, it sounds to me like it's a service that we are providing, and it might be an opportunity for me to again recoup money.
PANEL MEMBER: The question is, if I may, is it an appropriate governmental service?
MORRIS: I don't think it's the government's role to serve as a for-profit business. I mean recover your costs, if that is what you must do.
TRUBOW: Is that all right to do? Recover your costs?
MORRIS: I frankly believe that if there is an ability to pay and the cost is reasonable, then yes, as I said when I wanted to get records out of the state of Georgia on prison sentences that had been handed down by Georgia judges -- about 3000 records. It required some programming, because I told them that I did not want the names and social security numbers of the prisoners, because I was not going to be using the records for that purpose. What I wanted to do was look for patterns. We developed a story that showed that given a particular jurisdiction and a particular crime that was committed, black first offenders were twice as likely to go to jail as whites convicted of the same crime. And I didn't need names to support that. They charged me $1,700 to do that. I thought that was a reasonable fee for the programming, and I had no problem paying it. Now, if I had been someone who could not afford to pay, I could have filed for an exclusion under the Freedom of Information Act and said: "I think this is important, and you should consider waiving those fees."
ALLEN: George, a couple of points. First of all, those things that you are required to do in your office by statute, policy, or program requirement by your secretary should be paid for by appropriations. You should be permitted to recover some costs for any activities that you embark on above and beyond that, if you do elect to provide a service to someone which is not required by statute or program. However, I will point out that the more you are doing things that are not covered by statute or program, the more likely that we are going to come to look at your office.
The second point, though, is that I'm a little bit distressed by this discussion of mimicking Canada and other nations in terms of moving toward the adoption of the Crown Copyright. I think it's important to recognize that government copyrights are referred to as Crown Copyrights, because they were originally adopted by kings to control information and content. And I like you, George. I think you're a real nice guy and I think you mean well, but I don't think a public official, as someone operating on the taxpayers' dollars, should have the power to control content, or how content is to be used, regardless of the reason you are doing it.
TRUBOW: Well, then, I'm left with very little room to develop information services. It seems to me that with all the restrictions you folks are putting on me, about all I can tell this guy -- and it really hurts me -- is, "Here's the magnetic tape. Take it and have fun."
ALLEN: Perhaps you haven't gone to OMB and made a case to them as to why this information is valuable, and why they should give you more appropriations to support...
TRUBOW: Oh, they're cutting everybody. (laughter)
BELAIR: I think it's a function of purpose: if the purpose is to generate revenue, then I'm not terribly sympathetic, given that the revenue is coming on the back of information disclosure. If, on the other hand, the purpose is to actively disseminate agency information, and if there is a determination that the private sector isn't doing it -- there is a void out there, and for whatever reason the private sector has opted not to provide user- friendly, effective means of getting your agency's information to the public -- I think there are circumstances where government should take an active role, including the development of software programs in making that information available to the public.
Let me also just make a pitch for agencies keeping fees. As somebody said earlier, even in the FOIA context, agencies should not be able to keep the fees. Senator Leahy, as many of you know, has a bill in right now that would allow agencies to keep half of the fees in FOIA cases, in those rare instances where the agency actually complies with the time deadlines. I think that's a good idea. (laughter) One of the problems we have had with FOIA is that there are so few incentives for agencies and for the beleaguered FOIA offices to do a decent job. Let's start building in some incentives.
TRUBOW: Well, Bob, I could always meet my time guidelines if all I had to do was dump that magnetic tape. That would really help me. Costas?
TOREGAS: I'd also like to throw out, Mr. Chairman, some notion of defining government. You know, we have been through a lot as a society. I can think back 10, 20, 30 years, and our notions have changed collectively, or personally, as we sit around in our living rooms and discuss with our neighbors what our government is about. I will go a little bit beyond the definition that was offered by my friend further down on the microphone, Mr. Allen. I would say that the government has a very strong social role. Government is where people come together, whether at the federal level, the state level, or for me and my friends in local government much more intimately. Government is not necessarily, in my opinion, something that pushes people away from one another. It's an agency, a philosophy that brings a collective sense and a restorative sense to the individual. You may disagree with me, but my choice is not to get the government off the backs of people. I look around and I see a whole society being destroyed.
Now I will ask the question, can information play a role in this currently negative, blackening spiral of despair? You and I will make different choices. Some of us will say, "Yes, it can," and some of us will say, "No way." For those of us who say, "Yes, it can," and for those of us who choose either the federal, the state, or the local level to come together as a community, I want to make sure that information is being given a proper role to play.
I would suggest that we have a three-legged stool, of which we've only addressed two legs. We've talked about privacy, on the one hand -- privacy of the individual -- and we have talked also about ... what's the other leg here? Liberty -- security and liberty. I want to discuss the third leg, which is service -- getting something done with information. I reject the notion that we can draw a line and say that the government -- be it federal, state, or local -- has no say in service. Information can be a powerful service provider, a vehicle. We don't sit around our kitchen tables and eat information, but information and information technology can create a beautiful array of services, some of which will be presented through the private sector, some through the public sector, and some through partnerships.
All this discussion and debate has been focused, I think, on narrow aspects. I would like to broaden it and introduce the notion of service, and the role that information can play in getting that service delivered. Never mind public or private hats, because I think we need to come together as a society, and I do believe that information and information technology have a major role to play.
All of us up here who are trying to advise you, Mr. Chairman, on what to do about a hapless graduate student, are grappling with a much higher question. We can send the graduate student away. We can give him all the information he wants. But I think this graduate student has inadvertently brought us face to face with the question, what can information do for society today? My hope is that we do not end up putting up barriers between the role of information as a service infrastructure and what, in fact, we do tomorrow. And this is a call for partnership rather than for divisive behavior. (applause)
TRUBOW: I think I've got a suggestion for that partnership, too, arising out of the suggestions that you folks have been making. I think I've got some insights into some of the service that we can provide, because I can see some opportunities for new data configurations. When I was in the conference yesterday, I heard one of the speakers talk about the "Field of Dreams" notion -- "Build it and they will come." You know, I've got the sense that that really applies in the information area. Anytime somebody finds out that there's a database, they want it. Well, I have looked at a variety of our databases, and with a little bit of work, a little bit of manipulation, I can provide some exciting new information that I think is going to help us in our economic downturn right now. I'd like to use some of the taxpayers' money to develop those programs, and then recapture that in the fees that I would charge, either through contracting with the private sector, or being able to make some distinctions between what I'd charge one group as opposed to someone who might turn it into a profit venture.
FREEDMAN: But that's all out there right now, though. I don't really understand. Forgive me, but I think that's about the fifth time that you asked that question. I am sure, too, that it's to elicit responses. Everything in those two acts that I talked about and Circular A-l30 that's been out from OMB say that the government agency can recover the incremental costs of producing the data, the software, and all the rest of it. GPO routinely charges for the programming time, for the machine processing time, and for the CD pressing that's involved. That's all there. If that's a response to what you're asking, OK. If you're looking for something deeper -- should the government be getting into the marketing of data as a way of paying for the government? -- I ditto what I said before: you're ripping off the taxpayers, making the taxpayers pay twice, making them pay inflated profit-gauged prices the second time. You'll cut a deal with your exclusive contractor and you'll both be happy. You'll get more money for your agency and the contractor will be able to get a Mercedes for his secretary, perhaps.
TRUBOW: Let me turn this to our group now, and I think that maybe the audience who has come here to listen to this hearing may have some questions to bring forth, but possibly not. Let's begin here.
PETER DENNING: As a member of the public, I find the discussion here frozen in a particular moment in time -- right now at the present. You haven't been talking about how you got to where you are, or where the technology is taking us. When this Information Act came out, as I recall, the assumption was that information was going to be printed on paper and handed out that way. We're now moving toward a world where you can put all your information on public databases, online, and anybody can access it. You don't even have to know if it's a hapless graduate student or not. So what do you have to say about that? Your panel is pushing you in that direction a little bit, but what about the future? How can you take advantage of the technology that is arriving to put your information online and just let it automatically be given out to those who want it?
FREEDMAN: Just a point of information. The Information Act, HR 3459 -- at least as proposed by Major Owen -- is specifically addressing machine readable disseminating information, useful modes for appropriate outlets with adequate documentation, software indexes, or other resources. It will permit and broaden public access to government information, store and disseminate information, products, services, and standardized record formats, and use depository libraries, national computer networks and other distribution channels in approved public access to government information. So, this is the future and it specifically addresses the variety of format. It very specifically addresses the whole area of the machine readable format, and getting it out there to the public. I think that it really very much gets to the heart of the case study issue.
TRUBOW: Fred, what about the vision of the future?
WEINGARTEN: Well, the dilemma comes out precisely the way you framed it. Information systems these days are becoming increasingly large, complex, and difficult to deal with. So, it is not just a matter of saying, well, why not put it out there and let anyone who wants to get at it. In fact, that graduate student is making the argument that that's not adequate -- that I need tools; I need it to be reformatted and restructured in a way that I can use it. That, in fact, is going to be increasingly complex. There's an agency now that is building a database, or planning to build a database, so large they don't even have the technology and ability to build it right now. They're gambling on future developments. This database is going to handle a couple of trillion bits a day, and they don't even know how to build it so that their own highly sophisticated user community can use it, much less anybody in the public. So when we say that information is going to move from paper to electronic form, it opens up an incredibly complex host of questions, including: what duty does the government have to structure and prepare that information for the use of the public? And the public is not a uniform user. The public has a wide range of skills and a wide range of needs, not all of which could be predicted by the agency in the first place.
BELAIR: I'm actually relatively optimistic about what is going to happen in the Congress. We will get -- I'm not sure that we'll get it with this session or this Congress, but in the near term -- substantial reform of the Freedom of Information Act. It will speak to electronic media and records. It will speak to the choice of format issue; it will speak to reprogramming. Major Owen is one of the few librarians in the Congress.
FREEDMAN: He's the only one in the history of the Congress.
TRUBOW: Oh, is that right? Is he the only one ever?
FREEDMAN: Yes, if you don't count Thomas Jefferson, who was the president, but we consider him a librarian, because he was such a great librarian. (laughter)
BELAIR: His bill is a very thoughtful treatment of these issues. The part we haven't quite figured out, though, is the privatization issue, and just where that line is. Obviously the administration and OMB have taken a posture that is in one pole. The public access community is in a different place. We haven't quite figured that part out yet. But we are quite optimistic that it is going to get a lot better, because it's BEEN SO BAD. (laughter)
TOREGAS: We were challenged in terms of where's the vision of where this is going. I can give you three quick words: well connected community, a concept in my mind of a community, either at the local level, the national level, or the global level that enables us to be better connected to one another and to connect our dreams and our visions for the future, or society as a whole. Now how we articulate that, how we empower that, how we make that happen is complicated. It is not going to be created simply through accessing information. It will take collective action of individuals. So, where I'm at, I want to make sure that we have not only adequate and constant access to the proper information elements, but also an eye to creating service that will enable us to move forward in public and private. Regarding the privatization aspect that was just mentioned, I think it is a red herring. We need to look at partnerships between and across private and public agencies, and on that aspect I'm very firm.
TRUBOW: Mike #3, and I'm going to ask that we keep our questions brief, and our answers to about a minute.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: Primarily for Mr. Allen, or anyone else that would care to respond. The IIA position seems to be in continual flux. Maybe that's due to what's been happening in the country with the economy. Do you still believe that, in your words: (a) libraries should be taken off the dole? (which you shared with us last year) and (b) that the IIA's position is that a lot of this information should not be made available directly to the public because it puts the government in the position of competing with private enterprise (which is another position that you took in an interview)?
ALLEN: (laughter) I'm not sure: what was the first quote that I said?
AUDIENCE MEMBER: That it's time for our libraries to be taken off the dole.
ALLEN: Oh, I don't think I ever said that. (laughter)
AUDIENCE MEMBER: Would you like to hear it on the tape?
TRUBOW: Well, if he did say it, I think he'd change his mind. (laughter)
ALLEN: Well, you know with technology, you can do all sorts of things. (laughter) I think in terms of the Association's position -- it's continually evolving. It's evolving in terms of the technology which is changing in terms of the needs of our society. Certain things have not changed, in terms of the IIA, that is, some fundamental principles: the government should not assert ownership over information, the public has the right of access to information, and the right to know, and diversity of information sources is essential. What we have said, in terms of the role of government, is not that information should not be available from the government. We believe fundamentally that within the confines of privacy concerns, national security, and other things, that all government information should be accessible to the public to the maximum extent possible. Where we differ from past government policy is that the issue has been focused in terms of something called privatization. That's a red herring, because it generates a very emotional response in terms of people, because it suggests that you take a government function and you turn it over, contract it to the private sector. To the extent that you're dealing with one function, you're just turning it over. That is the wrong way to approach information. Government has the responsibility to insure that its citizens have access to any information they need. It is not the issue of whether or not government is the producer of that information -- that is secondary. Government agencies, whether it is you, Mr. Trubow, or anyone else, need to step up and say that government has the responsibility to insure the citizens access to information. And what is the best way to provide that access? Sometimes it's through direct government provision, sometimes it's through the library community, sometimes it's through the private sector. Most often, we believe that it's through a diversity of those sources. Government agencies should seek to promote that diversity. And that's the issue that government agencies need to pursue.
TRUBOW: Mike #1.
GLENN TENNEY: I would like to raise a couple of issues related to the online access and the media access to data. Before committing to become a candidate, I tried to find out how the incumbent had voted last year, with no luck. I found that it is available online for $6,000 a year. The PTO (Patent and Trademark Office) makes available CD ROMs. They are available only for IBM PCs that cannot give out the record layout or how the data is contained in the CD ROMs -- it's proprietary to another company. The Tiger Data is available at $250 a disk. The Commerce Department says, "That's a very fair and competitive price. My God, it would cost you a lot more than that to buy it commercially." And yet, it's a lot more than the incremental cost of that same CD ROM. I'd like to have a response: there is something wrong here. The data is available on CD ROM, the data is available online, but it's not affordable to us. It's affordable to the DC attorneys, the lobbyists, etc. What's wrong and how can we correct it?
TRUBOW: Who wants to comment?
FREEDMAN: Well, I'll jump in. The voting record that you want -- is that part of the Congressional Information Service database?
FREEDMAN: OK, for your information, our United States government -- with all the bashing that's been going on with regard to Japan and remarks made about Japan, which I'm not going to comment on one way or another -- do you know that the company that is selling that data about our U.S. Congress and their voting records, and also indexes to the Congressional Record, is owned by a Dutch company? Through all the heat and emotion and response to Bob's saying, "Let's sell off some of these things to keep our agency afloat," we literally are selling off the information and records of the United States Congress to a foreign company. And for what? I don't know. In any case, it's owned by Elsevier of North Holland.
I think that we've got to deal with some very serious issues here like what is the government's role in disseminating information? Diversity of sources is terrific, but the government should always be out there making that information available. The diversity should come afterwards by buying it, adding value in any way that you want to address, and dealing with it. But a taxpayer shouldn't have to pay $6,000 to find out about the voting record of his Congressperson, and then the money leaves the country.
TRUBOW: Even if that's a fair and accurate price for providing that?
FREEDMAN: Well, 6000 bucks for a single request... I don't know how it was structured, but it's access to the database, and I'm sure there are a whole bunch of conditions pursuant to it. The whole thing is that information should be available to the public. That's the fundamental Jeffersonian stuff we're talking about. How did your Congressperson vote? I want to know that. You can write to that Congressperson. In Tenney's case the guy didn't tell him.
ALLEN: A couple of things: first of all, in terms of the company, Congressional Information Service, I think it's important to point out that it was created 20 years ago. Before that company was created, the public had no access to Congressional records or reports or testimony. The fact is that the Congress for 200 years failed to provide that sort of access, but a private company spent its own money, its own time, and its own expertise to go out and create a series of products and services which are considered among the premier quality products today. So I think we should not criticize them, but we should acknowledge their presence. In terms of its being foreign-owned, I'm not sure that that is relevant to anything. It's a multinational marketplace. The employees are all U.S. employees, the money stays in the United States, and I think it's a red herring to suggest otherwise. Finally, the information that you seek is available in a variety of media. The question that you are asking today is, does the government have the responsibility to provide that information in all available media at taxpayers' expense? And that's the issue which we should discuss.
FREEMAN: How does the money stay in this country if it's a foreign-owned company?
ALLEN: It's very interesting bookkeeping ... that's just a quick response.
TRUBOW: Do you want to add a response? You put the question, do you have an answer for it?
ALLEN: In terms of whether or not all media should be available?
TRUBOW: How they cover their costs.
ALLEN: If the government produces it, I think it's going to cost as much for them to produce it as it does for the private sector. The point is, who's going to pay those costs? Is it going to be the taxpayer at large, or is it going to be the citizen? I would also note that most of that information is available through your public libraries. I would urge you to go use it there.
TOREGAS: This comes back to the question of the role of government, and I would suggest that government has another significant role, and I do not think that foreign ownership is a red herring. Information is an asset, and government in many cases will be the only steward of that asset. We have to be very careful and very cautious. And when we ask who will pay for this information, Ken, I don't think that you have answered that question. There is no free lunch. Private industry will make an investment decision. I want my government to make the same sound investment decision. There is no reason for us to postpone the agony and ask government to pick up those funding decisions that are irrational to make for private industry and to expect them to be made by the government. That's why I'm saying that partnership is the only answer.
TRUBOW: Mike #2.
JIM WARREN: I would like to see Congressional and legislative records online, and legislation in progress online, rather than locked up in the Congress for only those who are locally available to see it or see it in printed form.
I disagree with Evan about the personal records notification issue, at least in the context of voter registration records and assessor records where, if we cannot contact the body-politic except through the press and television, we cannot contact the body-politic as individuals and as people.
I've already paid -- and this is mostly for Ken -- I've already paid for this information once and I don't want to pay for it twice. I should have to pay the direct costs of copying the data, and I am willing to do so. It is not your data, Mr. Government Agent. It is our data. I have no problem accepting the data in any standard data transfer format and media -- fixed field ASCII records and nine-track tape or popular diskette, if that's what I've got to deal with. I don't want it channeled through an exclusive for-profit vendor. I have no objection to exclusive, or non-exclusive, for-profit vendors using it. What is the current IIA position on exclusivity of control over public records?
ALLEN: We are opposed to exclusive control; we are opposed to monopoly control by any party, public or private. We don't think that you should have to rely on a private company to get access to certain information. The issue is, do you want the basic information with some minor enhancements, or do you want a very sophisticated, value-added product. The private sector provides the latter, in most cases. But in no case would we support any agency's ever saying that the only place you can get that information in any form is from a private company or from some other source.
HENDRICKS: The rest of the sentence, Jim, about the right to protect your home address, means that you have to provide a post office box. You have to have an address that you're contacted at and where registered mail can be sent. Absolutely -- it's part of the accountability of this system.
WARREN: Except that doesn't work for voter registration records.
HENDRICKS: Well, I was talking about mostly drivers' licensing. Each one you go case by case. I think on the issue of access to Congressional information, and access to federal agencies, we're talking about online access. You know as a member of this advisory committee -- this sort of concerns me -- because in the interest of these agencies, if people have direct access to the information, they could use the agency's own information to criticize the agency's policies. (laughter)
TRUBOW: Oh, my lord, we can't have that! (more laughter)
ALLEN: I think in that way we might want to put together a task force to work with the Department of Justice on going to Congress, so that these proposals -- like Mr. Owen's and the one Mr. Belair was talking about -- don't go too far. (laughter)
BELAIR: This will come back to haunt you, Evan. (laughter)
TRUBOW: He's a good role player.
BELAIR: Subject matter, I think, makes such a difference. If you're talking about a Congressional voting record, that's critical information for democracy. It makes sense for the government to get in there, spend money, make an investment, and make that information easily available to the public. It is available now, and on numerous campaigns I have gone through it manually. It's a lot of work, and Ken is right -- there is value added. There are lots of types of government information where I think it is just fine for the private sector to get in there, capture it, provide some extra value, and sell it in the market. But there are some kinds of information -- Congressional voting record information is a perfect example -- where it's just critical for the democracy that as a government we get in there and make that available in an easily readable, understandable format.
TRUBOW: Mike #3.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: I'd like to address this to the chairman. I'm from the Department of Commerce. I think you have a lot of interesting ideas about how to work over your data and make much better products. I think you, in conjunction with your programmer, should go ahead and build this stuff. What I'd like you to do, though, is give up your power to compel people to answer your surveys, to make regulations, to write tariffs, and all the rest. If you think there is a market for this stuff and you're talking about recouping the taxpayer's investment, the taxpayer did not invest in you -- the taxpayer did not have a choice about this. If you think you can recoup the investment, get some venture money, resign from the government, make this information available, and recoup that investment.
TRUBOW: Let's be clear about this. If I give up my ability to compel information, my information resources dry up. (laughter) Mike #1.
JEREMY EPSTEIN: My name is Jeremy Epstein. I have two questions: first, at the very beginning, we were talking about whether this grad student had a relevant need for information. It seems that there was an assumption that because he was a grad student, a Ph.D. candidate, that he was a bona fide researcher. What if he comes from East Podunk State University instead of Harvard? What if he is a high school student instead of a Ph.D. candidate? Why does that make such a big difference in the discussion of whether this is a valid query? That's one question.
The other question is, there seems to be an assumption here that privatizing the data, that is, making it available to private companies for sale, is going to drive the costs up. I was involved in a case of privatizing tax records, which is done by a local company in this area. We put a gigabyte of data online of all the tax records in a given county, and we made it available for about $20 a month, unlimited access. It seems to me that the information can't be that hard and that expensive to put online. Why is there such an assumption that it is so expensive?
TRUBOW: Well, let me just make the comment about the distinction between institutions. My assumption would be that if we've got a researcher at Harvard, that's a very, very rich outfit and they can afford to pay for that information.
EPSTEIN: But the grad student is the one who pays, not Harvard, presumably.
WEINGARTEN: I started this, so I want to make a very clear distinction that may have been forgotten. I did not say that the graduate student does not have the same right as anybody else, whether it is a huge corporation or an individual, to access the data. The question is whether there is public interest behind that query that validates the expenditure of additional taxpayer money to restructure, to reformat, and to do the research that that graduate student should reasonably be expected to do himself. There is quite a different question here about the right of access.
TRUBOW: Two more questions. Mike #2.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: Yes, I believe that the government has no right to any of the information that it currently holds, except for national security or medical records on individuals. I think that the information should be made available. It should be privatized, and I think that is the simplest, fastest, and most efficient way. The Windows Act is good, they're on the right track. Unfortunately, they do not go far enough. This is a free society. If we want a free society, information has to be available. With the technology and the niche markets that are available today, there is a tremendous need for information -- for political purposes as well as for marketing purposes; for information, litigation, and for many other purposes involving fraud and other aspects of our society. So, therefore, it's important for this information to be released. There is no reason information should be taken out of the private sector, put in a database to become a private issue. It is public record in most instances to begin with. My question is: I want to know why the government doesn't look at getting the information, all of the information, out to the private sector so that they can work in conjunction with government. I believe the partnership concept is there, and I believe that this information then could be utilized. Only the private sector is going to do the marketing studies to know which information is salable. Government is going to spend a lot of unused money, or so one would think.
TRUBOW: Does that answer the problem, just give it to the private sector?
MORRIS: Well, in the case of at least one database that has been made available through the private sector, the Securities and Exchange Commission requires every company, public or trading company, in the United States to file various forms. There is a company that will sell you for $6,000 a piece of that pie. But if you want that same computerized access, you can't get it directly from the SEC. For the corporations who are using that for marketing and all kinds of things, that's great. But for me, I bought it for a year. I used it, and for $6,000, I said, "I'll live without it this year." I think I should have been able to have a reduced price to get at that. The SEC won't even consider, now that they have turned this over to a private company to market, making the same data available at a cheaper cost.
TRUBOW: Mike #3. Last question.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: Actually some people have been standing up for a while, since you let the last two people go also. I want to go back to the original scenario. I'm a data librarian with Penn State University Libraries, which is one of the government depository libraries under discussion. And just so that you know what happens with these problems in the real world -- as far as academe is the real world (laughter) -- with this kind of question and when this kind of graduate or doctoral student comes to us. What we would do is go to the various agencies, or data consortiums, who have collections of data, get it for the people and make it available on tape, which is the way you have it in your broadest form. To agree with Mr. Weingarten, who gave his first answer of should we reformat all this. No -- you're a student, you'll need to learn all this, go out and learn SPSS. The information should be made available freely and disseminated freely, not without any kind of charges. If we've got companies who are processing the different data and making it available, that is private enterprise. But the raw bulk data should be available for anyone to be able to go out and work with. This is pretty much how it is working now out in the field.
TRUBOW: Is there a comment on that?
WEINGARTEN: Just a very brief one. I think that is a good reminder that between the government and the individual citizens stand a lot of intermediating institutions. Not just the commercial database stuff. I mean, there are libraries, the press, public interest groups. There's a wide range of institutions that take this data, repackage it, and make it useful to their users.
TRUBOW: The chairman is watching me with the hook, and we need to bring this session to a close. Panelists may be available to chat with you separately afterwards. What I think has been emphasized so dramatically during the discussion and so well by our panelists is that even when we are dealing with information that we know is to be available, we understand that even though it's a free society, nothing is free. There is a cost to be paid, and our problem is to figure out how can we adjust the relationships between governments, the private sector, and government and pay for that cost. I thank the panelists for the roles they played and their expertise. It was a good session. (applause)
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