Online Access to Government Information

News Release: 
Friday, November 20, 2009


The ACLU-W believes in protection of rights of access to government information. Information is not owned by the government, but merely maintained by it; it should be available to all citizens. Access to information can empower citizens and lead to a more democratic, responsive, and generally better government. This policy does not address the question of what information is collected and maintained by governments; it is only concerned with access to existing information. Neither does it address what information should be exempt from disclosure.


The spreading computerization of government records should be designed with accessibility as a basic requirement, along with collection and maintenance of the data. The ACLU-W believes it is a government obligation to provide access to existing software to facilitate effective location of and access to data. When the government claims an exemption, it must provide programming to modify or delete exempt portions of records when making a disclosure.


To enable the widest availability of information and reduce barriers to access, the ACLU-W encourages the use of on-line access to as much computerized government information as possible. "On-line access" means remote access by any and all means technologically possible, including individual dialup access. In order to provide equitable access, free access terminals should be available at public places such as libraries and other remote locations. The availability of on-line access must never be used to limit traditional forms of access. In-person access with staff support must continue to be available for all government information.


The ACLU-W believes that all types of users possess equal rights of access. Making that access effective may require providing differing levels of assistance, depending on the types of assistance, depending on the types of users and requests. At one end, individual users making small volume requests may require greater levels of assistance. Commercial users using large volumes of access require the least assistance. In this context, "volume" is a measure both of the quantity of information requested and the number and frequency of requests; "assistance" includes (but is not limited to) training, staff support, access to equipment, and preferential fee structures.


Fees should not be used as means to limit access to information; access to government information should be encouraged. Government should attempt to provide new forms of access at no cost to users, just as in-person access is now provided. Especially, fees should never be charged for small requests by individual users (whether in-person or on-line), and there should be a generous allowance of free access for all users, including commercial ones. However, if fees must be charged, the total revenue must be no greater than sufficient to cover the incremental cost of providing electronic or other new forms of access. In order to justify charging fees, a detailed accounting of incremental cost must be made, and must include the savings realized from lower usage of traditional forms of access. This accounting should be subject to agency-independent review. Fees charged to large volume commercial users may be greater than the cost of providing access to those users, as long as the surplus is used to subsidize access to those exempted from fees. There should be numerous exemptions from fees, including but not limited to individuals, nonprofit organizations, scholars, and the media. Exemptions should be based on the identity of the user, not on the purpose of the request.


Access government information should not subject the user to any loss of privacy rights. Totally anonymous access to information should be allowed if possible. If this is not possible, the least amount of information should be retained on the user, for the least length of time. No personally identifiable records should be kept beyond the time the information has been provided and fees have been paid. These records should themselves be exempted from disclosure. However, statistical records of access may be maintained (and disclosed), as long as they do not include personally identifiable information.


Copies of information maintained in electronic form must also be made available in electronic form. These copies must be available in an industry-standard format, so as to be readable by the user. Reasonable documentation of the format must also be provided, and should be considered an integral part of the copy of the information requested. When the computer system (or network) used to store the data is practically capable of producing copies in a variety of formats, all of those formats must be made available on request.

July 17,1993