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Sunday, March 14, 2010

Information is not truly public until it is on the Internet

Every day, the federal government releases vast amounts of useful information about every aspect of our nation and how government works. This public information has a deep impact on almost every aspect of American life. Some of it can be used to hold our elected officials accountable for their actions, or have a profound effect on health, economic development and commerce.

The problem is, much of this government information is too often hard to find, difficult to understand, expensive to obtain in useful formats, and available in only a few locations.

There is a solution to this problem: the Internet. Because of this revolutionary medium, we now have new expectations about our ability to access information, including information about the work of government.

The Internet enables us to obtain a myriad of information 24 hours a day, seven days a week – from our latest credit card transactions to local traffic reports to the most recent baseball rankings.

But if we want information about our federal government – information often required by law to be made available to the public – we often must resort to filing a formal request and waiting for weeks or even months for a response.

This is why the Sunlight Foundation is working to inform a new legislative initiative that will soon be introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives to require that all public government-held information be available online.

This legislation follows Sunlight’s ethos that “public equals online.” That is, whatever information the government collects and discloses must be freely accessible online, in a format that can be downloaded and parsed by any citizen.

In the 21st century, information is properly described as “public” only if it is available online, 24/7, for free, in a machine-readable format. Government information cannot be considered public if, to access it, one must travel to Washington and view it on paper or on the screen of a balky 1997-vintage computer in the basement office of a government building, open only on weekdays from 9 to 5.

Currently, there is a multitude of information that the government has determined is public, but has not made available on the Internet. This includes data pertaining to pension plans’ solvency and investment practices, lobbying activities by federal grantees, the financial practices of the charitable sector, lawmakers’ financial disclosures and reports on travel by executive branch officials paid for by corporations and other third parties.

The failure to publicly disclose these data sets limits their usefulness, and deprives government and citizens alike of the value invested in collecting and maintaining this data.

Fortunately, the Obama administration is leading a movement within the government to create the new kind of disclosure regime necessary for the Internet age. But it does not go far enough.

We believe there should be a requirement that all newly created executive branch information – with commonsense exceptions for privacy, trade secrets, and such – must be made available online to anybody who wants to see it, free of charge.

Legislation to this end complements other developments we have witnessed during the Obama administration – including the online disclosure by the White House of its visitor logs; the launch of Data.gov, a central repository of government databases and data feeds; and last year’s Open Government Directive, which gave federal agencies a number of milestones to make government more open and collaborative.

But much more needs to be done. The government should be encouraged to expand on its transparent agenda.

A new paradigm must emerge that shifts the burden from the public to request information using the Freedom of Information Act to the government to disclose the information proactively. Providing online, real time, public access to government information will positively transform the relationship of citizens to government, rewiring our social contract.

Gabriela Schneider is communications director for The Sunlight Foundation, and can be reached at gschneider@sunlightfoundation.com.