Government should make information easier to get, lobbyists say

NEW YORK—New federal e-government laws don’t go far enough to codify and protect the public’s access to government information, two information industry lobbyists said at the InfoToday 2003 conference.

Mary Alice Baish, who monitors legislation for the American Association of Law Libraries, and David LeDuc, public policy director for the Software and Information Industry Association, agreed that the E-Government Act of 2002 was a step forward for public information access.

The law establishes a policy and technology framework that implies broad public access to government information, LeDuc said.

He also lauded the administration’s efforts to build “from the ground level” a technology infrastructure that makes information access easy and inexpensive. Mark Forman, administrator for E-Government and IT in the Office of Management and Budget, “is making great progress setting out a cross-agency platform for the delivery of information and services,” LeDuc said.

But without a clear policy on access restriction, a new federal e-government infrastructure can’t deliver what it has promised the public, he said.

LeDuc called for “a little tighter formula” to ensure that government officials can’t indiscriminately restrict the public’s access to both public and private information through the Web.

The boundary between access and protection of critical information has become blurred after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, he said. For example, information categorized as sensitive but unclassified is now much more likely to be removed from public access than before the attacks, he said.

Baish said e-government laws should be revised to guarantee what is commonly called permanent public access—the fundamental right to access any government information not classified as protected for national security reasons. “We can’t do without PPA language in our nation’s laws, or important information will be forever lost to the public,” she said.

“Thousands of documents were taken off government Web sites after 9-11, and there is no way to know what actually happened to those documents,” Baish said. “We don’t want to see agencies determine access if it means an overall erosion of access.”

Both lobbyists agreed with the government’s right to restrict information for purposes of national and domestic security, but they said the administration and Congress should move quickly to create clear guidelines on information restriction.

Future legislation should address:

  • Whether electronic documents should be treated in the same manner as printed documents—disseminated through the Federal Depository Library Program

  • How removed documents are logged and stored

  • How the public should be informed of removal actions.

  • Baish also called for a shift in federal policy on electronic information dissemination so that the government, and not public libraries, is responsible for ensuring public access.

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