IP Communications: Sen. Tester Pushes Bill to Take Freedom of Information to the Next Level

A United States senator is going is going to push a bill for creating the largest database for the American public. Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., is sponsoring a bill, titled “the Public Online Information Act” that would make many government documents accessible to public through a big, online, public database.

“It would be a big step toward a more transparent, accountable government,” Tester informed the media last week, in a conference call a few minutes after he formally introduced the bill.

If passed into a Federal law, it would require the federal government to put documents already considered public onto a searchable database. It is going to be a free resource which can be accessed by anyone with a computer. The idea is to make these documents easily and quickly available to the persons, who need them for particular reasons.

Currently there are ways for the people to access wide assortments of federal documents that are considered public record. But the mechanism is not efficient, making the whole process cumbersome and slow.

It becomes difficult for a person to access any document if he/she does not know where to look for them. Even if one knows the location, it becomes very tiresome to wade through the reams of public documents.

Then, people are also welcome to submit a request for accessing public documents under the Freedom of Information Act. But getting documents after such an FOIA request can take months, and some times even years.

Tester maintains that these are what actually stopping the public from accessing the documents in reality.

Naturally, Tester’s move has received applaud from various quarters, especially from the legal sector. Ellen Miller, the executive director of the Sunlight (News – Alert) Foundation, a Washington, D.C., group that advocates for more government transparency and which runs its own database of congressional staff salaries, praised Tester’s idea.

“In today’s world, for information to be truly public, it must be made available online. The Public Online Information Act redefines ‘public information’ for the 21st century,” Miller commented.

However some representatives of industries with many government contracts criticized the bill. There point is: “it required too much disclosure, especially about contracts.”

“If they don’t like it, that’s too bad,” Tester said. And he has his points.

The bill allows government offices to exempt some documents from the database if they explain why making them public could cause harm.

The bill doesn’t cover old documents. It would only apply to public records generated after the bill becomes law, should it pass. This, Tester said, would free the government from the task of scanning centuries-old written public records.

The senator said the bill would not cover documents already considered secret, like personnel files of government employees or any documents the government might have on private companies that include trade secrets.

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