Industry frets over FirstGov

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."


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