The Multinational Monitor



Information for Sale?

Dear Editor:

Writer Harry Lewis ("Keeping Secrets: Reagan's War on Government Information," September 1987) took some liberties with wording he used in his attribution.

For example, I did not say that the U.S. Department of Agriculture "pays Martin Marietta Data Systems [MMDS] to take this information." Rather, USDA contracts with MMDS to provide this information electronically to the public. This was done through competitive procurement procedures. A computer time-sharing firm was selected over some "information selling" firms. In other words, USDA leases time on an MMDS computer to disseminate its information to news media and other publics.

Another example: I did not say that "Martin Marietta actually sells this information back to the USDA whenever access by the agency is required." Again, if one program office of USDA wishes to access information electronically from another program area of USDA, it may do so through the time-share computer and simply pay for the time on the computer.

Magazines, newspapers, newswire services and electronic information distribution firms "sell" information to subscribers or clients. USDA does not "sell" its information to any public. It contracts with a computer firm to provide this information electronically in the same way it contracts with a printing firm to print a report or publication for distribution to the public. Users pay a small fee for the delivery system - computer or printing and postage.

Finally, the writer concludes that the USDA and NTIS examples foreshadow what may be the dismantling of the federal information structure. This is diametric to the very reason for expanding means of distributing government information to the public using the new technology available to us at the least possible cost.

Stan W. Prochaska
Chief, Special Programs Division
Office of Information, USDA

Harry Lewis Responds:

Regardless of how one characterizes the transaction between USDA and its database contractor, Martin Marietta Data Systems, (MMDS) agency (read taxpayer) funds are expended to load agency data into the contractor's system. Tax dollars are also expended on retrieval. Whether buying the information or buying the computer time to access the information, the semantic difference to the agency and the taxpayer is irrelevant. In this case MMDS is selling the USDA access - by way of its computer - to information the agency has previously paid to load into the contractor's system. Taxpayers pay when data is originally collected by the agency; when it is loaded into the MMDS system; and when it is accessed by USDA employees. In addition, MMDS derives the significant and exclusive benefit of making this data available to the public upon demand.

In my article, I referred to a "lucrative secondhand market of commercial data base operators who purchase USDA information from the Electronic Dissemination of Information system (EDI )and sell it to the public." To clarify, these commercial operators purchase the data by paying for the computer time from EDI contractor, MMDS. By way of correction, EDI belongs to USDA, which then contracts for its availability through MMDS. Although MMDS provides this information to the public, it cannot really be compared to a printing firm, as Mr. Prochaska has indicated. Government printing contracts generally provide for printing services to the agency. The private printer does not hold the right of distribution to the public, as MMDS does. Instead, the agency has generally made publications available, at least until recently, for free - postage and printing prepaid. [Although many reports and other USDA publications can still, at this writing, be obtained in paper copy at no charge, numerous reports, including consumer and nutrition publications once available to the public for free, can now only be had through the Government Printing Office for a price.]

Finally, the privatization of federal agency databanks may indeed threaten the structure and accessibility of the federal information system as it has existed. Privatized data bases may effectively exclude or inhibit those of the public unable to pay a private data firm's computer access fees. The issue is whether this new information management technology will be applied to the maximum benefit of the taxpayer and citizen consumers of modest means, or applied to the maximum benefit of private commercial interests who, in the spirit of President Reagan's in}'ormation policy, are eager to perform a government service for a substantial profit.

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