ARCHIVED: Legislative and Regulatory Update - December 1995

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December 1995

Mary Alice Baish
Assistant Washington Affairs Representative
Georgetown University Law Library
111 G Street, N.W.
Washington, DC 20001
202/662-9200 *FAX:202/662-9202
Internet:baish@law.georgetown.edu

And the Beat Goes On...

During the Washington Office update in Pittsburgh, I remarked that the early buzzwords on the Hill had become: downsize, privatize, move quickly to electronic, and eliminate duplication. This Congress and its Republican majority have clearly been focused and steady in pursuing these goals. Decisions being made this year and next are going to determine what it will cost our libraries and our users to access electronic government information. Another fundamental question is how much information agencies will continue to collect and disseminate as a result of the current downsizing, budget-reducing frenzy. With that in mind, here's an update on current legislation and other recent activities of the Washington Office.

Legislative Branch Appropriations

As promised, Clinton vetoed HR 1854 on the grounds that the other appropriations bills had not yet cleared Congress. The new FY 1996 Legislative Branch Appropriations bill, identical to the earlier version, is HR 2492. It passed the House on October 31, 1995 and has been sent to the Senate where it is expected to also receive speedy action.

As part of this legislation, Congress mandated a GPO-initiated study to provide the blueprint for a transition to a cyber- government. My October column outlined the specifics of this study and its importance. Gary Bowden, the Administrative Office of the United States Court member of the GPO Study Working Group, has just drafted his preliminary work on some of the issues related to the dissemination of Circuit Court information. AALL has offered to assist his efforts by providing broader user perspectives.

Telecommunications

The conference committee on the deregulation of the telecommunications industry met for the first time on October 25, 1995 to begin reconciling the differences between S. 652 and H.R. 1555. The issues are exceedingly complex and it is expected that the deliberations will continue for many months. President Clinton continues his veto threat if the telecommunications reform bill is passed without major changes.

Two of the issues which concern us, however, are being discussed right now. We strongly support the Snowe-Rockefeller- Kerrey-Exon Amendment which provides for discounted telecommunications rates for libraries and K-12 schools. The Telecommunications Resolution drafted by the Government Relations Committee and endorsed by the Executive Board last July advocates the universal service provisions contained in the Snowe-Rockefeller amendment. The Senate overwhelmingly approved this amendment by a vote of 98-1 last June, but there is no similar provision in H.R. 1555.

The second issue requiring our active support involves the obscenity provisions, and we continue to work closely with larger coalitions to oppose any language which would impose federal regulations over online content or violate an individual's privacy by censoring online communications. A recent letter to the conferees from the Interactive Working Group of which we are a member urges parental empowerment rather than government regulation; adopts the principle that there should be no vicarious liability for interactive computer service operators (this would protect public and private networks, including libraries); proposes a uniform national policy which would preempt any federal/state/local judicial or regulatory sanctions; and urges that the vague "indecency" standard be replaced with "harmful to minors." The issue, however, remains contentious since we are up against strong lobbying by conservative groups who wish to see expanded liability for online service providers and greater FCC regulation.

National Technical Information Service

Under various Congressional proposals to dismantle the Department of Commerce, the National Technical Information Service (NTIS) would either be privatized or become a government corporation similar to the US Postal Service. In a September letter to Rep. Robert Walker, Chairman of the House Science Committee, AALL expressed concerns about these efforts. NTIS serves a vital role as a clearinghouse for scientific, technical and business-related information. It is a self-supporting agency and therefore has to recover costs from the sale of its products and services.

In our letter we suggested that the privatization of NTIS might result in reduced public access to these materials. We also noted that a private company might not be fully committed to their preservation and long-term access. Finally, since NTIS documents are not actively disseminated to the public today but are available only through a sales program, we urged the Committee to consider means by which the government's scientific and technical information could be more accessible and affordable to the public.

NTIS has been particularly effective in the electronic environment, and its FedWorld bulletin board provides no-cost access to well over a hundred other Federal bulletin boards. It has just unveiled a new service, World News Connections, which provides translations of foreign news reports and broadcasts related to business opportunities, foreign legal information, environment and political news. Unlimited access to full-text information is available through a nominal, flat-fee pricing structure. More information is available by calling NTIS Fax Direct at 703-487-4140; the product code number for this new service is 8645.

EDGAR

In last month's column I made a special effort to point out, it now seems prematurely, that there are some positive things happening here in Washington in the policy arena. In a September 29, 1995 letter, we had applauded the decision of the Securities and Exchange Commission to provide Internet access to EDGAR and we noted in particular that this decision would serve as a good model for other agencies.

In early October, very shortly after the SEC's decision was announced, the SEC issued a Request for Information in which they posed twelve questions about the future of the EDGAR database. Three of these questions directly relate to the possible privatization of EDGAR, and to whether no-fee access through the Internet should continue!

This is a very critical issue for us. Apparently the SEC is under strong pressure by the private sector to retreat from their decision to make this database available on the Internet. AALL sent a letter to the SEC on October 30, 1995 in which we strongly urged the continuation of no-fee Internet access to EDGAR. We opposed the suggestion that EDGAR be privatized and that its legal ownership be given to any one company. We also pointed out that the current dissemination methods, at low-cost through the Internet and through private sector, value-added services, was entirely appropriate and consistent with Federal information policy.

The American Library Association, the Association of Research Libraries and the Special Libraries Association all signed onto our letter which will shortly be posted to Aaallnet. In addition to this agency-initiated review of EDGAR, there have been some hints of Congressional interest in this issue. We will continue to closely monitor developments and will keep you updated.

PACER

We first learned about this series of PACER forums, being held during November in the New York City area, New Jersey, Miami, Phoenix and Philadelphia, from a law-lib posting. Recommended for regular users of U.S. Bankruptcy and District Court PACER services, these forums are a means for us to share concerns about the PACER services with local and national representatives, and to suggest improvements.

I plan to attend the Newark, N.J. session and was pleased to receive several responses to our call for comments on law-lib. Concerns seemed to focus primarily on registration problems with the PACER Service Center. A suggestion that each court post the dates of its docket coverage on the welcoming screen seemed quite fundamental, and yet obviously it isn't mandated. Information about whether a forum is being scheduled in your area can be obtained by calling the Service Center at 1-800-676-6856.

LA Board of Supervisors Decision

As you may recall from last month's column, SCALL President Hal Brown and the Washington Office collaborated in preparing testimony for the October 5th LA County Board of Supervisors hearing on a proposal to develop an enhanced online database for court information. The proposed Information Access Provider agreement passed by a margin of 4-1.

In reading through the minutes of the hearing, one can't help noticing that the County anticipates that they will collect $700,000 in revenues FY 95-96 from this agreement: 10% will go towards the county's management and administration of the program; 72% will be distributed to the participating Courts or Information Systems Advisory Board for technology reinvestment; 18% will go to the General County Fund. The enhanced database had been specifically intended to raise additional revenues for the County during their current budget crisis.

Despite all the vision and rhetoric of the value of developing a low-cost NII to link the public with their government, we seem to be hearing more and more frequently about initiatives similar to this throughout the country and at all levels of government. Although we knew from that start that this would be a hard battle to fight, it was very important for us to make a strong statement opposing this proposal. Let's hope it's not true in this case that all trends begin in California!

New NII Reports

The Commerce Department has recently issued two NII reports of interest. The Survey of Rural Information Infrastructure Technologies sets out to examine the availability of various telecommunications technologies that are cost-effective in rural areas. Privacy and the NII: Safeguarding Telecommunications- Related Personal Information is a comprehensive look at privacy issues associated with an individual's use of telecommunications services. It recommends a self-regulated, voluntary approach on the part of companies to make consumers aware of the use and dissemination of their personal information. Both reports are available at the National Telecommunications and Information Administration home page (http://www.ntia.doc.gov).

Final note

We are almost mid-stream in the deliberations of the 104th Congress and it is imperative that we remain vigilant and vocal against sweeping tides that threaten to reduce access to government information. It is very important that we continue to work closely with other groups and coalitions to see that the public interest is protected during this time of change.

In order to update members on these issues in a more timely fashion, beginning with this month's column I will be posting my monthly articles to Aaallnet at the same time that I send them along to our fine editor, Peter Beck. We hope that this will be received as good news for all of you who are interested in keeping up with Washington Office activities.