Web projects revive debate over data sales

The debate over how much information the government should give
away is heating up again because of new Internet projects at the Patent and Trademark
Office and the Securities and Exchange Commission.

Whether the government encroaches on industry turf when it disseminates documents
publicly is not a new issue. But in the past decade the arguments have gotten more intense
as more agencies move into the on-line services arena, a realm the private sector almost
completely dominated until recently.

Now PTO and SEC are sparking new anxieties in the value-added information reseller
market. The data they will upload to their new World Wide Web sites has high resale value,
both vendors and the agencies acknowledge.

But PTO and SEC officials said they expect industry still will be able to turn a profit
on manipulating the bulk data that will be free to all comers on the agencies' Web sites.

PTO spokesman Richard Maulsby said it is unlikely there would be much detailed or
analytical information available over his agency's soon-to-be-operational Internet site
because of financial restraints.

''It's too costly,'' Maulsby said. ''Our main job here is to move people through the
system.'' Service vendors still would be able to add a lot to the basic information that
the agency will provide via the Internet, he said.

PTO also is facing significant budget cuts, and it makes money from selling the patent
data to companies, which then offer value-added information, he said. ''It's a revenue
stream for us.''

The SEC's Web service--which provides SEC documents 24 hours after companies file the
data on the agency's Electronic Data Gathering, Analysis and Retrieval system--became
operational at the end of September, replacing an 18-month trial service that had been
funded by the National Science Foundation.

During the past year, the NSF-funded pilot drew nary a peep of criticism from vendors.
SEC officials seemed almost to ignore the project and expressed little interest in
continuing their own Internet service when it ended. But public interest groups clamored
for the free data and the SEC made an about-face.

SEC chairman Arthur Levitt Jr. said, ''The SEC is charged with the responsibility to
make corporate information available to investors, and some 12 million documents are filed
with us annually. This new site will take information collected by the SEC and make it
more widely available to the investing public. Investors will benefit and so will our
capital markets.''

But a number of vendors and the Information Technology Association of America are
resistant to the SEC and PTO on-line programs.

''We're not sure that there's a crying need for this data,'' said Daniel C. Duncan,
vice president of government relations for ITAA, which has a membership of 550 technology
companies and a reputation for defending the rights of value-added information resellers.

What is being put on the SEC Web site goes far beyond what an individual citizen would
need and cuts into vendors' value-added services, he said.

Duncan said the ITAA believes the SEC and PTO are violating the Paperwork Reduction Act
of 1995, which set guidelines for disseminated government information, products and

The law states that agencies should make an effort to learn about available vendor
services so they do not needlessly duplicate existing efforts and provide adequate public
notice of planned dissemination projects. ITAA contends the two agencies violated both
these strictures.

SEC officials said they are baffled by this complaint. ''There's clearly a trend to
make the public's data public again,'' said the commission's chief information officer,
Michael E. Bartell, who suggested that the SEC Web site fits in with recent demands of the
Congress and the White House.

''What's so unique about the Securities and Exchange Commission?'' he said.

Furthermore, Bartell said there apparently is an appetite for the data. In the first
week, more than 450,000 files were downloaded from the site, far more than the SEC had
anticipated, he said. ''That's an enormous amount of traffic. I think we're doing the
right thing,'' Bartell added.

James Love, director of the Taxpayers Assets Project, a Washington advocacy group that
has been pushing for additional public access to government documents, said the SEC and
PTO battles are only two of a number such simmering dissemination disputes. He predicted
that the government will be faced with more and more battles as agencies increase the use
of the Internet to give the public access to their databases.

The EDGAR service can be reached at http://www.sec.gov.
  The address of the PTO site, which opens for business Nov. 9, is http://www.uspto.gov.

Stay Connected

Sign up for our newsletter.

I agree to this site's Privacy Policy.