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Put Public Information Online

March 17, 2010 - by Eric Naing

Many people are familiar with the Freedom of Information Act, or FOIA, which forces government agencies to disclose certain types of undisclosed information. But what about the government data lying around that’s technically public but not easily available? This is where our colleagues at the Sunlight Foundation come in.

Rep. Steve Israel [D, NY-2], along with the Sunlight Foundation’s Ellen Miller and Personal Democracy Forum’s Andrew Rasiej, yesterday unveiled the Public Online Information Act (H.R.4858) – otherwise known as POIA. POIA is designed to, as Miller pust it, “ensure that government information will be available to everyone within a few keystrokes on a computer.”

Specifically, the bill requires federal agencies, at no cost, to put already publicly available information online in a searchable and user-friendly format. The bill also creates a special federal advisory committee comprised of private and public sector appointees that will monitor and advise federal agencies on the issue of transparency and will issue guidelines on how to move forward with that goal in mind.

Rep. Israel at a press conference explained why POIA is needed:

Right now, our government will stamp something ‘public’ and lock it away in a warehouse in Maryland. That’s about as accessible and transparent as a nuclear missile silo… It’s time for “public” to mean something different. My bill will require that all executive branch agencies make their public documents easily available online. People across the country – from scholars to school children – should be able to see any public government information from the convenience of their computer.

A few examples of this publicly available but not easily accessible information include lobbying activity disclosures from government contractors, executive branch travel expenses paid for by third-parties and personal financial interest filings from government officials.

Of course, not everything would have to be disclosed. Exceptions include information pertaining to national security, personnel rules and trade secrets – the same exceptions that exist for FOIA. Agencies will have three years to comply with POIA after it becomes law. Also, POIA would not be retroactive, meaning that federal information disclosed before POIA would become law is exempt.

For more on POIA, check out the Sunlight Foundation’s information page here. Also check out their video embedded below:





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