Sen. Jon Tester’s Public Online Information Act of 2010 establishes a 19-member advisory committee with the power to establish “nonbinding” government guidelines for making public information available on the Internet.
The bill also seeks to give the E-Government Administrator and independent regulatory agencies the power to issue binding rules about making government information held by executive agencies available on the Internet.
“Government information is too often hard to find, difficult to understand, expensive to obtain in useful formats and available in only a few locations.”
One major point in the bill is that records should be made available online permanently, freely and in a usable format.
Despite government efforts to make information publicly available over the years, the bill says that “government information is too often hard to find, difficult to understand, expensive to obtain in useful formats and available in only a few locations.”
The bill goes on:
In addition to the traditional means of disseminating public information, the Federal Government should make all of its public information available on the Internet. It should do so in ways that take advantage of modern technology, that anticipate the needs of the public, and that provide access to the greatest number of people. The Government should strive to make its information available on the Internet in real-time and in machine processable formats.
The bill says that the government “shall make public records available on the Internet at no charge (including a charge for recovery of costs) to the public.” However, the “free” clause “shall not apply in the case of a charge imposed by Federal law before the date of the enactment of this Act.”
From this wording, it makes it sound like if a fee was assessed for access before the law is passed, then the person who was charged the fee will still have to pay.
However, I think the wording also leaves it open for government agencies to charge for access to documents that remain in a non-digital format (e.g. paper, maps or microfilm).
In addition to being permanently available online, government agencies will have to publish a “comprehensive, searchable, machine processable list of all records” that that they make available online. The list must include, at minimum, a brief description of the records, information on where the records can be found and whether they are available for free or for a cost.
This is not a strict call for a federal database of records, as some of the earlier news articles said. Really, it’s just a call for a list to be published.
Yes, the most efficient way for such a list to be published would probably be in the form of a database, but that doesn’t preclude an executive agency from publishing a single Web page that holds an actual list of records a mile long.
After Section 7, the text of the bill gets into legal matters about requests for information and possible appeals and lawsuits surrounding denied requests for access to government information. I’m not going to go through the details. Feel free to read them yourself. (PDF).