Industry frets over FirstGov
- By William Matthews
- Oct 03, 2000
A little more than a week after the new governmentwide Internet portal opened
a vast trove of information, a battle is brewing over who can use it and
The federal government is providing the information to the public for free,
but is imposing restrictions on how the information can be used by the commercial
Internet companies want access to the information for free or for minimal
cost, and they want to be able to resell it, repackage it, sell advertising
around it and track the browsing habits of information viewers.
The clash between government and commerce commenced Monday before the House
Government Reform Committee's Government Management, Information and Technology
In seemingly contradictory complaints, the Software and Information Industry
Association, a major Internet industry organization, assessed FirstGov as
both not very useful and as unwelcome competition.
Mark Bohannon, a senior SIIA official, said his search for government information
using the FirstGov search engine produced a "truly staggering" number of
returns — far too many to be useful. And the portal's "interesting topics"
feature took him "to pre-existing sites that would be familiar to those
who are already familiar with specific parts of government," he said.
Despite those deficiencies, Bohannon also complained that FirstGov is an
example of "the growing ways in which government is in competition" with
companies in electronic commerce. The conditions the federal government
seeks to impose on companies that want to link to FirstGov are unfair and
possibly illegal, he said.
The portal, which went online Sept. 22, received much kinder reviews from
other witnesses. Patrice McDermott, an information policy analyst who is
a past critic of FirstGov, called the portal "an enormously important first
step — actually a giant leap — in harnessing newer information technologies
to make the federal government more accessible to the public."
FirstGov provides Internet users with access to a search engine and a database
of all the information the federal government has posted on the Internet.
By contrast, commercial databases typically offer access to about 20 percent
of the government's Internet pages.
Internet companies would like to harness FirstGov's search capabilities,
but they object to conditions the federal government has placed on using
it. According to the General Services Administration, which operates FirstGov,
there are three:
* Government information must be provided for free.
* No individual can be tracked while browsing government pages.
* No advertising is permitted on FirstGov pages.
Bohannon complained that the advertising ban and "free access" requirements
fail to take into account "the diversity of business models" Internet companies
use when providing Internet access and information. The restrictions also
may violate federal law, he said. Bohannon quoted from the Paperwork Reduction
Act, which he said prohibits federal agencies from restricting or regulating
the use, resale or redissemination of public information to the public.
Citing the same act, Sally Katzen, deputy director of the Office of Management
and Budget, said the law "makes it quite clear" that government information
must be provided for free. "Taxpayers paid for it once [when it was compiled,]
they shouldn't be forced to pay for it twice."