A private citizen who took on the herculean task of posting online a profusion of raw data from the Securities and Exchange Commission now is preparing to publish a stack of patent and trademark information on the Net because he says the government is dragging its heels once again.
In a letter to Vice President Al Gore and Commerce Department Secretary William Daley, Carl Malamud, the head of the nonprofit Internet Multicasting Service and an interim professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, demanded that the Patent and Trademark Office (PTO) be forced to comply with a 1996 paper reduction law and publish online complete and up-to-date patent and trademark registry files--which in some cases can pile up to 500 pages.
A hero among public-disclosure advocates, in 1994 Malamud created and maintained a small PTO database and a massive SEC site, now known as the Edgar Database, before that agency took it over 18 months later when Malamud planned to shut it down.
Although the PTO publishes digital copies of the first page of every patent application filed over the past 20 years, Malamud said by July 1 he will dole out the cash and time to erect an expanded PTO site. Then he plans to pull the site by year's end, hoping to stir up public outrage--a tactic he claims will put pressure on the agency to continue the service.
"One hundred and fifty years ago the patent office could meet its public disclosure obligation by providing a few patent libraries around the country. We don't believe that works in 1998," Malamud said. "There is no longer a question about whether people use the Net, and that this is cost effective."
Technology experts who work for the government acknowledge that digitizing federal documents and offering them online isn't as hard as it may seem. But despite various federal mandates, some say there is an underlying force stalling the drive to transfer miles of dusty paper files to the Net: the thriving commercial industry that stands to be threatened if all public information actually becomes free and easy to access.
Moreover, public-disclosure watchdogs charge that aside from a few impressive exceptions, most government entities are not in compliance with the Electronic Freedom of Information Act of 1996. The act mandates that government documents be accessible via the Net unless they are classified as confidential for national security purposes or contain trade secrets, for example.
PTO Commissioner Bruce Lehman contends that he has no problem with putting data at Net users' fingertips, but there are roadblocks. For now, the PTO does let visitors search the weekly Official Gazette Notices from 1995 to 1998, which record patents and trademarks that have been issued.
Still, some patent application information is confidential and can't be uploaded automatically, he said. Also, the PTO is self-supported, he noted, so patent applicants subsidize the current online offerings. In addition, the office rakes in $20 million from retailers who repackage the raw data and sell it to lawyers and citizens. For instance, a CD-ROM containing all the patent applications for a year costs $3,000.
"Somebody has to pay for these things," Lehman told CNET's NEWS.COM. "[Retailers] are concerned about us offering services that would undermine their businesses," he added. "If we put everything up on the Internet we would lose sales [as well]. We'll probably make more data available for free--we just have to balance these interests as we move into the future."
The SEC apparently had the same concerns when Malamud started buying its information from commercial services--such as instantaneous copies of public companies' earnings reports--and making them publicly available and searchable through his Web site. Today the SEC site gets 500,000 hits per day, and agency officials say retailers have not been hurt by the change.
"Carl Malamud is sort of the father of this. The chairman [of the SEC, Arthur Levitt,] determined that it was a good public interest to keep this data available on the Net when Carl was preparing to discontinue his service," Mark Brickman, manager for the SEC's information technology infrastructure, said today.
"Pretty much it is an automated system now," Brickman added. "Our level-one disseminators still get this information real time, five minutes after it comes in. The SEC puts it up 24 hours later because we try not to interfere with those businesses."
The PTO is not the only government entity being called to the carpet for picking and choosing which public files will be opened up via the Net.
Last month, the nonprofit OMB Watch issued a scathing report on the government's progress in complying with the Electronic Freedom of Information Act, signed by President Clinton in 1996.
The Defense Department and the Federal Communications Commission were two entities OMB Watch applauded for their search services and stellar progress. However, according to the policy analysis group, none of the 136 government Web sites affected by the act were in full compliance with the rules, such as establishing an organized site with a search engine for documents and supplying electronic forms, dubbed FOIAs, that journalists or citizens can use to request hard-to-find or previously sealed government documents.
Congress must supply necessary funding and apply strict oversight to ensure that public documents find their way to the Net, said Gary Ruskin of the Congressional Accountability Project.
"The most important text of federal bills, like discussion drafts or mark-ups, are rarely put on the Net," Ruskin said. "The original version or drafts passed by a committee always go up on [Thomas], but the lobbyists play games with these drafts in between and we ought to be able to read them."
He contends there are endless examples of government data that should and could be online, but isn't. Ruskin is pushing for the passage of a federal bill that would lift the floodgates on one part of the legislative process. The joint-house effort aims to put Congressional Research Service (CRS) reports on the Net. The tax-funded service provides nonpartisan analysis of legislation for Congress members, but the reports are only available from private vendors.
"An informed electorate is the most important facet in any republic. The CRS reports are some of the best research the federal government does. The reports are in plain English and are about important issues pending before Congress," he added. "If they have an electronic copy, how hard is this to do?"
At least one leg of the government says in most cases, the process is not that difficult.
Directed by Congress, the Government Printing Office (GPO) has been plugging away since 1993 to create a one-stop cybershop for all three branches of government. The GPO hosts 30 agencies' records and 70 public databases, which include more than 100,000 publications.
"Once we get them, we produce the Congressional Record and Federal Register overnight," said Andy Sherman, director of public affairs for the GPO. "By 6 a.m. the next day, we post the equivalent in size to up to six daily metropolitan newspapers or 200 pages."
The GPO never pulls documents down and receives 13 million to 15 million page requests per month.
The popularity of the GPO's system also lends weight to Malamud's theory: If more people have access to raw data, they will participate in the political process. At the same time, existing niche markets will continue to pay retail services for up-to-date, well-packaged information.
"In terms of people wanting direct access to the authentic information, some do want to go to the source and get it from the government directly," Sherman said.
And the GPO has accomplished its work without a tremendous amount of cash. "We were not provided additional funding to do this," he added. "It was predicted that GPO-provided access for five years would cost $60 million, but it has cost under $10 million for that time period."
When it comes to the PTO, it almost is imminent that Malamud will carry out his threat to post the PTO's full registries online. The outcome could be different from his experience with the SEC, however.
In that case, he gave a 60-day warning to his users that the site was being pulled, which, contrary to the SEC, he says was a personal decision, not a matter of funds drying up. Still, Malamud's plan worked. The SEC stepped up to the plate, took over the site, and even improved the online service.
He plans to use the same strategy with the PTO, encouraging angry users to complain to the vice president when he shuts down the site at the end of the year. The chances are slimmer that the PTO will comply, but Malamud is undeterred.
"I've been working for several years to put government information online. I have paid $190,000 for U.S. government data so far," he said. "The [PTO] data defines who owns intellectual property--the real estate in this information economy. This issue of making it fully available should not be a fight."