Internet

Net spells death for government information agency

A government agency that provides documents such as agricultural reports and officials' speeches for a fee is being shut down after nearly 50 years.

A government agency that provides documents such as agricultural reports and officials' speeches for a fee is being shut down after nearly 50 years, the latest example of the Internet's effect on traditional business models.

The Commerce Department said it is doing away with the National Technical Information Service (NTIS) because its fee-based service "is no longer needed in this day of advanced electronic technology."

Commerce Secretary William Daley said he is working with Congress to make sure individual government agencies offer online the documents previously provided by the NTIS. He added that NTIS archives will be moved to the Library of Congress.

Ari Schwartz, a policy analyst at the Center for Democracy & Technology, applauded the move.

"We think that it's a positive sign that the government is actually looking at its information policy holistically. We hope it will lead to more agencies posting the information that they create on a daily basis," he said.

NTIS has endured criticism since May, when it unveiled Gov.search, a Web site developed in conjunction with search technology firm Northern Light.

The privately held company planned to charge $15 per day or $30 per month for access to the site, but as previously reported, the plan faced opposition from the Clinton administration and advocacy groups such as the Congressional Accountability Project. Both questioned the fee, saying it conflicted with goals of an open government.

The site's fee structure was suspended for three weeks in May so officials could determine whether it was consistent with freedom-of-information policies, said Leslie Ray, director of partnership marketing at Northern Light. Officials eventually decided there was no conflict.

The site has since changed its name to "Usgovsearch.com" and has lowered its fee to $5 per day. Ray added that Northern Light will continue to operate the site, regardless of whether NTIS is shut down.

Commerce Department spokesman Moorie Goodman said plans to shut down the agency are unrelated to the Usgovsearch controversy. Over the past six years, he said, NTIS revenues have dramatically declined, as individual agency Web sites offer for free many of the same documents the agency sells.

"It's not cost effective," Goodman said. "The secretary thinks it is not good business." Since the 1980s, the 50-year-old NTIS has been required to sustain itself by charging fees.

Although Goodman said the agency's demise is not related to Usgovsearch, the Center for Democracy & Technology's Schwartz said he thinks the site brought the issue to a head and eventually led to Daley's proposal.

Goodman said the lack of a central warehouse for storing government documents is not likely to hamper citizens' access to information. "The information is available. You just have to do a little clicking to find it," Goodman said.

The Commerce Department said there are no immediate plans to lay off any of NTIS's roughly 250 employees. The agency said it will try to find related government jobs for them or will retrain them for other positions.