NTIS is an information policy disaster
It is common in Washington to find two inconsistent policies in full bloom at the same
time and in the same place. For instance, members of Congress strongly oppose wasteful
government spending while merrily bringing home as many local spending projects as
possible, regardless of merit.
Pools of rhetoric are available to support each objective. Clever politicians dip into
the appropriate pool to make whichever point they want. The truly adroit can advance
conflicting goals at the same time. Of course, when politicians advocate balanced budgets
and tax cuts at the same time, the inconsistency is visible to all. But in more obscure
fields, such as information policy, the conflicts are not always as apparent.
Today's example comes courtesy of the National Technical Information Service. NTIS is a
small agency, part of the Commerce Department, that serves as a clearinghouse for
government technical and scientific information. By law, the agency is self-sustaining. It
must support operations, including overhead, through its own revenues. To survive, NTIS
uses high prices, royalties and restrictions.
The problem is that these practices are inconsistent with prevailing information policy
standards. For example, the Freedom of Information Act severely limits fees for government
information. Many requesters pay only 10 cents a page. The statutory pricing scheme is
deliberate, supporting the policy goal of widely available, low-cost government
The Paperwork Reduction Act is more direct. It expressly prohibits royalties for
government information and restrictions on its reuse, and it mandates marginal-cost
How can NTIS's activities be reconciled with the policies in the FOIA and PRA? They
can't. There is a direct conflict. If NTIS operated under the policies that apply to other
agencies, it could not be self-sufficient. Without royalties, restrictions and high
prices, NTIS can't survive.
When supporting information dissemination activities, members of Congress and the
Clinton administration speak about the importance of information in a democratic society
and the need to make government data widely available on the Internet--and without any
copyright, licensing or other restrictions either.
But when it comes to NTIS, the rhetoric shifts to cost-free government acting just like
the private sector and user fees supporting specialized government services.
I don't have any trouble picking sides here. NTIS is an information policy disaster.
NTIS takes public information from federal agencies, repackages it and resells it at a
high price. Worse, it adds patently illegal restrictions on reuse, thus magically creating
a monopoly over public-domain government data.
In my view, what NTIS does is bad policy. NTIS may be following its self-sufficiency
mandate, but it is violating the FOIA and the PRA. Actually, the agencies that permit NTIS
to disseminate their data in this fashion compound the problem. These agencies should
disseminate their data on their own, without high prices or restrictions. Alternatively,
they should pay NTIS to disseminate data in the same fashion.
Who is prejudiced by NTIS' restrictions and high prices? Everyone who uses government
data distributed by NTIS. You might expect the information policy community to scream, but
NTIS gives discounts to libraries so they don't complain. Some private companies hate
NTIS' restrictive policies, but others cooperate with NTIS and try to share in the
A good FOIA lawsuit probably would stop most of the games, but suits are expensive. It
remains to be seen if the private sector will mount an assault on NTIS' practices. The
information industry wants the Office of Management and Budget or Congress to solve the
problems for free, but the issue is messy and there is not enough vocal opposition.
Meanwhile, NTIS gets more and more daring. It keeps raising prices and making more
demands of its customers. Overall, NTIS nickels-and-dimes everyone and hopes no one will
be unhappy enough to fight back. It might be right in the short run.
But NTIS is an anachronism. It is a vestige of the paper era trying to make a living in
a networked world. The Internet is eliminating the role of information intermediaries like
NTIS, and the agency will not survive in the long run.
And when NTIS disappears, the politicians who previously supported it will shrug. Then
they will immediately turn in another direction and claim credit for the elimination of an
unnecessary government bureaucracy.
Robert Gellman, former chief counsel to the House Government Operations
Subcommittee on Information, Justice, Transportation and Agriculture, is a Washington
privacy and information policy consultant. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.