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What's the Deal with GAO/Thomson Deal?

Questions continue to be raised among bloggers about an agreement in which the U.S. Government Accountability Office gives publisher Thomson West exclusive rights to federal legislative histories prepared on the public's dime. Public-access proponent Carl Malamud (who we've written about here and here) was quoted March 17 on the blog Boing Boing explaining that he has been investigating the arrangement with help from the Electronic Frontier Foundation:

The law librarians at GAO have compiled complete federal legislative histories from 1915 on. These are the definitive dossiers that track a bill through the hearing process and into law. If you want to divine the intent of Congress, this is where you go.

GAO cut a contract with Thomson West to have these documents scanned. Thomson West claims they have exclusive access to these public documents and even go so far as to boast that you should purchase this exclusive 'product' from West because the GAO law librarians (public employees!) have done all the work for you!

Malamud set up a Scribd page that contains the documents he has obtained from the GAO pertaining to this agreement. This weekend, the blog Free Government Information went through the documents in some detail and posted some interesting facts. The documents show that the GAO has compiled 20,597 legislative histories covering most public laws from 1915 to 1995 and spanning the 64th to the 104th Congresses -- almost all in paper or microfiche. In recent years, the GAO sought ways to digitize these histories, to preserve their integrity and improve their searchability. It tried to do some of this in-house, then went looking for a partner, which it found in Thomson West.

These documents raise the question: Why would the GAO enter into a relationship giving a private commercial entity exclusive rights to this valuable public resource? "Wholesale privatization without a careful, public examination of other, more citizen-friendly, alternatives is not acceptable," Free Government Information asserts, while Simon Fodden at says that even if Malamud is being alarmist, the situation presents "a cautionary tale for any government agency that wants to leverage its records with the help of private enterprise." As far as I can tell, no one from either the GAO or Thomson West has responded to the concerns raised by these bloggers and others. Here is their chance. If someone from either entity wants to shed light on the arrangement, we are all ears.

Posted by Robert J. Ambrogi on March 24, 2008 at 02:07 PM | Permalink | Comments (4)


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