Bill would require agencies to post public documents online

OMB would set publication rules, with federal officials asked to create a searchable catalog of materials they make publicly available, including where records can be found and brief descriptions.

Rep. Steve Israel said his bill would take information "out of metal file cabinets and into the sunlight of the Internet." Evan Vucci/AP

A House member unveiled a bill on Tuesday that would redefine executive branch public information as content that is available on the Internet and searchable, requiring agencies to post all future public records online within three years.

Rep. Steve Israel, D-N.Y., proposed the 2010 Public Online Information Act, which would task the federal chief information officer in the Office of Management and Budget, a position currently held by Vivek Kundra, with establishing publication rules for all agencies except independent regulatory agencies such as the Federal Communications Commission. CIOs at independent regulatory agencies would have discretion in setting rules.

The measure would take public information "out of the metal file cabinets and into the sunlight of the Internet," Israel said when announcing POIA outside the Capitol. The event was scheduled to coincide with Sunshine Week, an annual nationwide campaign to promote open government and freedom of information that runs March 14-20 this year. It was spearheaded by journalists in 2002 and now attracts civic groups, libraries and lawmakers.

Under POIA, each agency would have to create a searchable catalog of materials it makes publicly available, including where the records can be found, whether the records are available to the public at no cost or for a fee, and brief descriptions of the records.

Currently, many public documents are accessible on paper or on computers in federal buildings, which typically are open only from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., noted Ellen Miller, executive director of the Sunlight Foundation, a government transparency group that joined Israel to debut the bill. The foundation plans to launch a national campaign on Thursday called Public = Online to promote the idea that government information should automatically be available over the Internet to hold public officials accountable.

The bill defines public records as any content regardless of form that an agency "discloses, publishes, disseminates or makes available to the public." The federal CIO or chief information officer at a regulatory agency could grant "narrow case-by-case exceptions" if an agency can demonstrate a "clear and convincing reason for the record to not be made available on the Internet" and the harm resulting from disclosure outweighs the public's interest to obtaining the record online, according to the bill.

Agencies would have to indicate the amount of content deleted, unless that detail would reveal sensitive information.

The bill does not mandate the type of file formats that would have to be made available. Some open government groups, including the Sunlight Foundation, have urged that all information be released in formats that allow programmers can mash up the content with other data sets to discover patterns, like links between contractors and politicians.

Miller said the proposal establishes an advisory committee that would make recommendations about what formats would be most useful to the public.

The idea for the bill came from Andrew Rasiej, founder of the Personal Democracy Forum, an online community and annual event that discusses the intersection between politics and the Internet. Rasiej, who also accompanied Israel on Tuesday, mentioned the concept at one of his conferences, then ran into Israel the same day and suggested it to him.

Israel acknowledged to reporters after the event that some administration officials might argue that publishing records to the Internet will burden agencies, but he said the bill gives agencies three years after enactment of the law to comply.

The measure is prospective, so employees would not have to scan and post documents that were created before the rules took effect, according to Miller. "This piece of legislation is extremely moderate and thoughtful in how it should be done," she said.