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AS PRIVATE-SECTOR firms ? including newspaper companies ? gain greater control of government records, First Amendment activists are sounding the alarm that ordinary citizens are losing access to public information.
"What we are seeing is a growing collusion between government and the [private] information industry in shutting out the public ? unless [the public] wants to play 'dollars for data,' " said Paul McMasters, executive director of the Freedom Forum First Amendment Center.
But the private-sector firms ? who increasingly are taking control of electronic databases of local, state and even federal governments ? say their role is as important as the press' in preserving liberty. "It [is a] risk leaving the government to control all the information it gathers . . . . It's dangerous; it doesn't support American liberties. The feds have tried to censor, track users . . . copyright public information. But there's not a single instance of this having taken place in the private sector," said Gerry Sikorksi, the former Minnesota congressman who is an attorney and lobbyist for the giant legal publisher, West Publishing Co.
The issue of privatization of public information is taking on an increasing urgency as computer technology makes public information more easily reassembled for commercial sale ? and as cash-strapped governments at all levels begin to look at their public records as ever-growing cash cows. Journalists have been disturbed by a tendency for governments to either hand over its electronic records to private publishers ? who charge for access ? or to keep control themselves ? and also charge for access.
At the Society of Professional Journalists annual convention in St. Paul, Minn., representatives of journalists, private information companies and consumer advocates squared off over the issue of who should control government information.
From the journalists' point of view, the answer is pretty simple.
"Public information belongs not to the government, not to the private vendors, not even to the press ? but to the public," McMasters said.
"As we go into privatization," said Henry Hoberman, SPJ's First Amendment counsel, "the overarching principle must be that public information belongs first and foremost to the public, regardless of whose hands it passes through." How specifically should that be accomplished? In general, journalists and activists say, government agencies should not give private firms exclusive contracts to handle the information.
"The fundamental key is for any federal agency to keep responsibility for their records," said Jamie Love, director of Ralph Nader's Taxpayer Access Project.
SPJ attorney Hoberman noted that the Securities and Exchange Commission has proposed giving the private companies who helped develop its electronic database a 24-hour head start, in effect, on public information. These private online services would have exclusive right to the information for 24 hours, at which point it would be released on the SEC's publicly available database.
"You've heard the expression, 'Justice delayed is justice denied.' In some respects, access delayed is access denied ? especially when it comes to journalists who need immediate access to information," Hoberman said.
But private publishers complain that government control of its electronic information has proven disastrous time and time again.
Daniel C. Duncan, head of governmental relations for the Information Industry Association, recounted the story of Los Angeles County's ill-starred attempts over the past half-year to computerize its court records.
First, Duncan said, the county had an exclusive contract with a private vendor to handle all the records. However, the vendor's proposal to charge "exorbitant" fees in return for its investment sparked a furor. The county then decided to manage the electronic records themselves ? and, according to Duncan, came up with their own exorbitant fee schedule.
Private publishers are to be charged a one-time $50,000 fee for access to the information and must put up a $50,000 deposit to cover future royalties.
Royalties, too, are being charged at exorbitant rates, Duncan said. The county, he said, wants royalties of $1.40 per record ? charged each time a publisher's customer looks at the record.
The Information Industry Association argues that the government should not be allowed to charge royalties for commercial use of its information.
Yet, it also argues that private sector publishers must be able to charge for government information that it "adds value" to.
"If you start to take away the right of the private sector to use or not use information as it wishes, to publish or not publish it, you are taking away one of the most important aspects of American freedom of the press," IIA's Duncan said. "You must allow them to have the incentive to do that ? and that means to [charge] fees."
Duncan and West Publishing lobbyist Sikorski argue that governments have better things to do than manage databases, and that news organizations should not get so exercised over privatization.
"After all," Sikorski said, "most of us get our government information from a non-government source. We get government news from you [journalists]. People get their tax information from H&R Block. They get their government real estate information from their Realtor [real estate agent]."
And newspaper companies, too, are getting involved in assembling public information and redistributing it ? increasingly for profit.
"It can be as benign as the Dayton (Ohio) Daily News hooking on to the court's database and making it available to the public," Freedom Forum's McMasters said.
"But there are other instances where these archives are controlled and they are really in the marketing side of news organizations.
"Right now, we [in the new business] are already getting a little bit pregnant," McMasters added.
For Love, the solution is for governments to make their underlying databases available to anyone who could organize the data in any number of ways.
That system also avoids the privacy issues that emerge when governments set fees for access to information, Love said.
?("What we are seeing is a growing collusion between government and the [private] information industry in shutting out the public-unless [the public] wants to play 'dollars for data.") [Caption]
?(Paul McMasters, executive director, Freedom Forum First Amendment Center) [Caption]
By: Mark Fitzgerald First Amendment activists are sounding the alarm that