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U.S. PUBLIC INFORMATION POLICY

It seems to be a well-kept secret in Washington that the U.S. policy of open and unrestricted access to taxpayer-funded government-generated public information is not based solely on abstract notions of democratic principles, such as open government and transparency. Rather it is also based on an economic understanding that the information generated by the single largest information generator—the government—is an important input, just like gas, coal, or water, to the economic process. The United States holds as a matter of both economic and political principle that “government information is a valuable national resource, and . . . the economic benefits to society are maximized when government information is available in a timely and equitable manner to all.”2

The roots of this policy run deep. The sources of U.S. information policy include the 1976 Copyright Act, the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), the Paperwork Reduction Act, the Electronic FOIA Amendments of 1996, and the Office of Management and Budget Circular No. A-130. Information generating agencies of the U.S. federal government, including the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, the U.S. Geological Survey, the Department of Agriculture, the National Institutes of Health, the Census Bureau, the Bureau of Labor Statistics, and all others, follow the same information policy, which is to actively disseminate all taxpayer-funded public information without any restrictions or conditions and without the assertion of copyright or database protection regimes.

The United States does not have a sui generis database protection regime nor is it likely to have any such regime in the near future. U.S. government agencies are forbidden to charge more than the cost of dissemination for the information and they are urged to take advantage of private and academic channels of information dissemination. Agencies are encouraged to use the best available technology, including the Internet and the World Wide Web.

Taxpayer-funded government information is an important economic input. The database and information retrieval industries in the United States are large and have grown exponentially since the beginning of the Internet revolution. They are dependent to a great extent on free, unrestricted, taxpayer-funded government information, which covers everything from economics to statistics to agriculture to the weather.

Approximately one-third of the U.S. economy, and likely most nations’ economies, particularly in developing countries, are weather and climate related. Every sector of the American economy has some sensitivity to the weather, and firms that cater to that sensitivity have developed in the United States. Firms cater to other sensitivities as well. For example, the United States has a very robust geographic information industry that one does not see in many other countries.

Weather and climate information, and utilization and exploitation thereof, is a partnership in the United States. The government works very closely with the research community. The advances in critical engineering and analytical techniques that the researchers in India are seeking to use in their research on monsoons are dependent upon both academic and governmental support.

At the same time we have in the United States a number of interesting ventures involving the private sector and the media. For example, the U.S. company The Weather Channel has no counterpart in Europe. I suspect that “borders in cyberspace” is one of the reasons.

DIFFERENT MODELS FOR FUNDING PUBLIC-SECTOR INFORMATION

There is an interesting bureaucratic philosophical difference between information policy in the United States and in Europe (see Figure 17.1). The U.S. model says that if the mission of the Environmental Protection Agency, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, National Institutes of Health, or U.S. Geological Survey is to create information, then that information should be made available to the users, who are taxpayers and contributed to the cost of generating the information in the first place, to do with as they will. The users in turn will generate jobs, income, new business, and new industry using the information.

2  

Office of Management and Budget Circular. 1996. Circular No. A-130, “Management of Federal Information Resources,” 61 Federal Register 6428, February 20, at http://www.whitehouse.gov/OMB/circulars/a130/a130.html.



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