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Federal search site suspends fee plan

Hours after a new fee-based federal site debuts, the Commerce Department temporarily suspends its fee structure.

Just hours after officials yesterday unveiled a new Web site indexing millions of government documents, the Commerce Department temporarily suspended the service's fee structure to review whether it violates the Clinton administration's policy on open access to government information, an official said.

Critics had blasted the National Technical Information Service for charging $15 for a daily pass or $30 per month to use, which indexes more than 20,000 government Web sites and 3.8 million pages. The NTIS, charged with collecting, cataloguing, and disseminating government research and information, developed the site in a joint partnership with Northern Light Technologies of Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Gary Bachula, the Commerce Department's acting undersecretary for technology, said officials are reviewing the fee plan.

"We're putting [the fee plan] on hold to examine the policy on government information to make sure this is consistent," Bachula said in an interview with CNET "We believe it is, but we want to make sure."

An executive at Northern Light said the service would be free for the next two weeks "in order to promote the benefits and value of the service to the widest possible audience." A notice on the Web site also says the service will be free until June 1. It was unclear what would happen once the two-week period was over.

Gary Ruskin, director of the Congressional Accountability Project, had criticized the fees, saying they would prevent average citizens from making use of the site. The Clinton administration has long promoted a policy of providing unfettered access to government information.

Earlier in the day, a government official had said the portal of government information was designed to streamline the process of accessing government reports and in no way prohibited citizens from using alternate sources.