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Public info more free on the Net

A bill that will bring the Freedom of Information Act from the stone age to the information age is on its way to the White House for President Clinton's signature, possibly within weeks.

A bill that will bring the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) from the stone age to the information age is on its way to the White House for President Clinton's signature, possibly within weeks.

As the Internet becomes more accessible to mainstream America, U.S. citizens and some lawmakers are unsuccessfully fighting for the right to tap into government information online, including travel expense reports, committee votes, and hearing transcripts.

Last month, the California State Senate's Elections Committee killed a similar bill that would have required California state candidates to file their political campaign records online. The bill is set to come up for review next year.

The "Electronic FOIA," which passed in the House on a 402-0 vote and in the Senate by a voice vote, will make federal information available via the Internet and expand the number of online public records. The Senate passed the bill in 1994, but it died in the House.

The bill would update the existing FOIA, which turns 30 this year, to offer federal agency records to the public via the Internet. Typically, FOIA has been used by attorneys, lawmakers, businesspeople, and reporters.

The EFOIA bill doesn't offer information beyond what is already available to the public on paper; it just makes it easier and more timely to receive.

"These changes will make access to government information easier," Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vermont), one of the bills sponsors, said in a statement today. "The point of this bill is that the American people have a right to know how their government works, or doesn't work."

The government receives 600,000 FOIA requests a year, some of which take up to two years to process, according to Leahy.

Today, Leahy sent a letter to President Clinton urging him to sign the bill.

"In the thirty years since the Freedom of Information Act became law, technology has dramatically altered the way government handles and stores information," he wrote. "This legislation takes steps so that agencies use technology to make the government more accessible and accountable to its citizens."

Some say the EFOIA bill is a good start, but it's only a small part of the big picture. "Unfortunately, some of the most valuable materials won't be opened up through the EFOIA bill," Gary Ruskin, director of the Congressional Accountability Project said today. "We still don't have access to critical documents and that is very damaging to our democracy," he said.

Ruskin recently fought to pass House Resolution 478, a measure that would have given U.S. citizens access to internal House documents, including travel expense reports. The House Oversight Committee chose not to hold hearings on the measure this term, which Ruskin attributes to "scared" government officials. "Members of Congress like the system the way it is and they don't want citizens to have access to those kinds of documents," he said.

Tomorrow, hearings will be held on another bill, the Internet Election Information Act, introduced in June by Representative Rick White (R-Washington). If passed, the bill would give federal office candidates, challengers and incumbents free Internet access to tout their campaigns, much like they do in TV commercials.

The bill would replace current laws that have been on the books for 22 years, which do not include online services and ISPs as communication services allowed to offer free services to political candidates.