Data Flowing Freely onto Info Highway

Article excerpt

For 30 years people used the Freedom of Information Act to monitor Uncle Sam's behavior. Congress now wants to apply the law to cyberspace - and the future of electronic recordkeeping depends on it.

When in 1995 the Congress first considered the Freedom of Information Act, or FOIA, the federal government owned 45 computers. Forty years later, it used more than 35,000. Now cybersurfers have direct access to documents via home pages on the World Wide Web and Thomas, a government-run online service.

Uncle Sam's entree onto the information superhighway, coupled with controversies such as the Clinton White House's collection of FBI files of former Reagan and Bush employees, have left many wondering just what is public and what is private when it comes to electronic information. Federal courts have set legal precedents about E-mail, but Congress has not touched FOIA in a technological sense since its enactment in 1966, when the personal computer was still a dream in the minds of whiz kids. The intent of FOIA was to provide the public -- including citizens, businesses, journalists and lawmakers -- with a clear right of access to government documents.

"I think of it primarily as a tool for the 'little guy,' a law that helps reporters, public-interest groups and taxpayers without subpoena power or influence to obtain documents about the actions of our government," Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Eileen Welsome said in June testimony before Congress.

The way public records are kept and disseminated has changed drastically from that Independence Day of 30 years ago when President Johnson signed FOIA into law. The public's business has been conducted with everything from manual typewriters and clunky terminals to lightweight laptops, but the rules for accessing it basically have remained the same. That's why Democratic Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont and freshman Republican Rep. Randy Tate of Washington are using FOIA's anniversary to update it into the Electronic Freedom of Information Improvement Act of 1996, or EFOIA. "We're trying to move it into the 1990s -- if not into the next century," Tate tells Insight. "The federal government needs to be more user-friendly."

This is not the first attempt to bring FOIA into the computer age. In 1991, Leahy introduced EFOIA legislation that died after a committee hearing in 1992. The Senate passed a modified version in 1994 but the House did nothing. In March, Leahy successfully won Senate Judiciary Committee passage of a similar bill (S1090). And the House Government Reform and Oversight Committee unanimously approved its version of Leahy's bill July 25, with the expectation that the full House and Senate will pass the measure before the August recess.

Journalism associations, watchdog groups and others have lobbied for EFOIA, insisting that federal agencies need more guidance to comply with modern-day FOIA requests. Agencies have reported almost 600,000 requests annually and usually respond that they cannot meet the time requirements because of a huge backlog.

For example, J. Kevin O'Brien, chief of the FBI's Freedom of Information and Privacy Acts section, testified before Congress in June that the FBI's backlog houses more than 15,000 requests. "FBI files contain very sensitive information, and [it] is necessarily time-consuming, and the analysis cannot be done properly if it is done in haste," he said. "Only more analysts, trained to process requests, can significantly diminish the backlog."

O'Brien said the FBI had begun a two-track system for FOIA processing, helping to speed its response time. This means that uncomplicated inquiries can be met promptly, rather than every request being processed on a first-come, first-served basis. Tate describes it as the government's version of supermarket check-out lines: Those with 15 items or less can move to the express lane.

As Leahy wrote in an EFOIA report to the Senate: "Long delays in access can mean no access at all. …