When Public Information Goes Private

As companies like Google and Microsoft forge ahead with ambitious projects to scan the collections of many prominent research libraries, some have raised concerns about giving private entities so much control over content that is typically open and free to the public.

In a similar vein, a number of open government advocates and legal pundits have recently turned their attention to a suspicious contract that will give Thomson West the digital rights to a massive compilation of legislative histories prepared by the Government Accountability Office (GAO).

Much of what we know about the Thomson West contract has been uncovered by internet archivist Carl Malamud--who runs a website at assistance from the Electronic Frontier Foundation. As Malamud describes it, the GAO legislative histories are the "definitive dossiers that track a bill through the hearing process and into law. If you want to divine the intent of Congress, this is where you go."

GAO staff have compiled more than 20,000 legislative histories covering most public laws from 1915 to 1995. As it stands now, the histories can be viewed in either paper or microfiche form at the GAO onsite library. You can also ask GAO for copies of the histories, at a cost of 20 cents per page.

In an effort to preserve the histories, GAO wants to scan them and make them available in electronic format. Digitizing the histories began as an in-house effort, but GAO recently awarded Thomson West a contract to take over and complete the project (see below). Under the terms of the contract, Thomson West will scan all of the histories (including the documents already scanned in-house) at no cost to GAO. Once it has scanned the histories, Thomson West can make them commercially available to the public, and can charge a fee to recover the cost of digitization (GAO staff will still be able to access the documents for free on their own special account).

As many bloggers have observed, however, there are pressing questions about the Thomson West contract that have yet to be answered. Since taxpayers already paid for GAO staff to compile the legislative histories, why should the public have to pay again to view the histories online? Why do government employees outside of GAO have to pay to view the histories? Did GAO consider awarding the contract to any educational institutions or nonprofit organizations before deciding to go with a private company? What happens if Thomson West decides to raise its fees or further restrict public access to the histories?

We don't mean to sound the alarm on all public-private collaborations; there are countless examples of the government utilizing the efficiency and ingenuity of the private sector to advance projects that serve the public's interest. And it is certainly understandable that Thomson West would want to charge a fee to recover the cost of digitizing the extensive collection of legislative histories.

Nevertheless, as the government puts more and more information online, it should consider the ramifications of giving private companies like Thomson West exclusive control over materials that are of great interest to the public.