NTIS puts fed search engine on hold

In the wake of questions over whether the government was charging improperly for government information, the Commerce Department today delayed the release of a new World Wide Web search engine that would enable users to search through millions of online federal documents.

Officials from the department and its National Technical Information Service unveiled the search engine, www.usgovsearch.com, at a news briefing this morning. NTIS designed the engine in a joint venture with Northern Light Technology LLC, Cambridge, Mass., and the two organizations planned to charge $30 for a monthly subscription to the search engine, which would have access to almost 4 million federal Web pages and other federally related electronic documents.

But late this afternoon, in the wake of media reports in which some sources questioned whether a federal agency should charge for access to documents created with taxpayer dollars, the department put the release of the engine on hold indefinitely.

In announcing the decision this afternoon, Gary Bachula, acting undersecretary for Technology Administration at Commerce, said officials were studying whether the new product subscribes to federal information policy.

"In announcing the product and joint venture with Northern Light, we did not anticipate any conflict with government information policies," Bachula said. "But questions that have arisen today point up the need for a review of this service from a policy perspective. Specifically, press reports today raise questions of consistency with government information policy, and we want to make sure that this search service, which was to be sold by subscription, is appropriate and fits within government policy."

The new search engine would connect Internet readers to documents that they already can find for free on the Web or documents that can be bought from NTIS.

Search engine developers, however, this morning hailed the new product as a "value-added" tool for finding public information more easily—with users being able to customize searches for searching specific agency Web sites or specific topics, such as health care or agriculture. "This is the kind of information that can be very difficult to find [on a general search engine]," said David Seuss, chief executive officer of Northern Light.

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