Washington Brief - October 1999

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Dateline: August 26, 1999

AALL's Amendment to H.R. 1858

On August 5, 1999, the House Commerce Committee marked up and ordered reported to the House H.R. 1858, the Consumer and Investor Access to Information Act of 1999, preserving AALL's language excluding primary legal materials. In his opening comments at the mark up, Chairman Tom Bliley (R-VA) noted that there was heavy opposition to the bill from realtors and the legal publishing industry. Indeed our amendment, Sec.104(f), not unexpectedly came under heavy attack from several Committee members. However, Ranking Member John Dingell (D-MI) noted that the bill provides unfettered access to facts in the public domain and Rep. Billy Tauzin (R-LA) reiterated that one of the purposes of the legislation is to make more government information available to the public. In a press statement following mark up, Chairman Bliley noted that "The bill the Committee unanimously approved today strikes an important balance, between protecting the rights of those who collect and disseminate data, and ensuring the public's access to this information." Bliley added that Commerce staff would begin working with Judiciary staff to negotiate differences between H.R. 1858 and H.R. 354, the Collections of Information Antipiracy Act of 1999 that was favorably reported out of the Judiciary Committee in May. AALL, the library and academic communities, and our broad coalition partners in the Digital Future Coalition have long opposed H.R. 354 which proposes new protections for a wide range of factual databases.

The successful outcome of the August 5th mark up was a huge victory! Our sincere thanks to everyone who supported AALL's efforts to gain the Commerce Committee's support for our amendment. Your calls, letters and e-mails were crucial to our success, as were the many Hill visits made during our Legislative Day here in Washington in July. This is an on-going legislative battle as these two House committees now grapple with two competing and very different database protection bills, and it's great to know that we can count on your continued assistance!

Department of Commerce Proposes Elimination of NTIS

In an unusual twist highlighting the shaky financial situation of the National Technical Information Service (NTIS) in recent years, on August 12, 1999, Secretary of Commerce William M. Daley announced his intention to close down the agency, to transfer its archives to the Library of Congress, and to ensure that agencies disseminate all their technical and business reports to the public at no fee through the Internet. Calling the NTIS business model "fundamentally flawed" in today's electronic environment, the announcement follows in the wake of the decision by Congress not to give NTIS $2 million they had requested for FY2000. Created in 1950 to serve as a clearinghouse for the government's vast collection of scientific, technical and engineering information, NTIS has been self sustaining through the sale of information products to the public and by providing services to federal agencies on a reimbursable basis. In denying NTIS's unusual budget request, the Senate Appropriations Committee ordered a General Accounting Office (GAO) audit to review NTIS operations.

Many within the library and user communities have long been very critical of how NTIS operates and believe that the concept of NTIS is fundamentally flawed in that the agency collects and sells for profit government information created at taxpayer expense. In addition, there has always been a great divide between NTIS and GPO since they are competing government information distribution channels. NTIS materials have not systematically been available to depository libraries in the past, although 20 depository libraries, including South Texas College of Law, have been part of a limited GPO/NTIS pilot project since January. NTIS was also sharply criticized in May for its plan to charge subscription fees for usgovsearch, a new search engine developed as a joint venture between NTIS and Northern Lights that allows users to search through millions of federal online materials. Reacting to strong public criticism questioning whether a federal agency should be allowed to charge for access to government information that has been created at taxpayer expense, the Department of Commerce withdrew from the joint venture and subsequently announced that the new service would remain fee-based but that it would be available as well at no cost to schools and libraries.

We are in the process of meeting with congressional staff to discuss Secretary Daley's proposal and the need to preserve NTIS's functions if the agency is to be closed. The House Science Committee's Subcommittee on Technology has scheduled a hearing for September 15th and we've been promised a witness slot. This is a golden opportunity to educate members of Congress that, in terms of public access, NTIS materials are "fugitive"; that its collection of some 3 million publications must be archived for permanent public access; that its important electronic databases must continue to be produced; and that, with the mandate to disseminate more information through the Internet, agencies must be held accountable for permanent public access. Stay tuned!

The "10 Most Wanted" Government Documents

The Center for Democracy and Technology (CDT) and OMB Watch released their "10 Most Wanted" list of government documents at a Senate press gathering attended by Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT) and Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) on August 4, 1999. These are titles--across all three branches of government--that the public believes should be readily and permanently available at no cost through the Internet. The top 10 titles are, in order: Congressional Research Service Reports; a Supreme Court web site; the State Department's Daily Briefing Book; the Pesticide Safety Database; the full text of all Congressional hearings; Department of Justice Court Briefs; Congressional votes--in a searchable database; Endangered Species Recovery plans; the Official Gazette of Trademarks; and federal Circuit and District Court opinions. This is an on-going project, and as these top ten collections move to the Internet, CDT and OMB Watch will replace them with other categories of information that would significantly benefit the public. The full "10 Most Wanted" report, including a list of "Five Government Web Sites on the Right Track" and an online submission form for your nomination of other most wanted titles are at http://www.cdt.org/righttoknow/10mostwanted/.

 

Mary Alice Baish
Associate Washington Affairs Representative
Edward B. WIlliams Law Library
111 G Street, N.W.
Washington, DC 20001-1417
202/662-9200 * FAX:202/662-9202
email:baish@law.georgetown.edu