Commerce Department urges closure of government information clearinghouse

Monday, August 16, 1999

Citing the growing influence of the Internet and other advanced technology, the U.S. Commerce Department last week announced plans to dismantle the National Technical Information Service, a 50-year-old clearinghouse for government scientific and technical reports.

'This was a tough decision to make, but sound management dictates that we cut our losses and recognize the technologically advanced environment we live in,' said Commerce Secretary William Daley in a statement. 'This is the right thing to do and the best thing for the American taxpayer.'

Congress formed NTIS in 1950 to sell government documents on microfiche and paper. But sales have declined recently since such reports were available on the Internet for free; in fact, the service has not operated at a profit in six years. As an example, the Commerce Department noted that its report 'The Emerging Digital Economy II' is available for free online. NTIS charges a $27 fee for the report on paper or microfiche.

In its semiannual report to Congress, the Commerce Department's Office of the Inspector General concluded that 'even with significant efforts to improve profitability, NTIS can no longer generate sufficient revenue to remain self-supporting.'

The news comes nearly three months after department officials announced and then rescinded a plan to charge users for searches of government Web sites.

On May 17, the department announced plans to impose the fees using a search engine developed by Northern Light Technology, a company based in Cambridge, Mass. But only a few hours later, department officials said they would drop the fee plan.

Commerce Department officials said they would send Congress a plan next month detailing how it should close NTIS and shift the service's archives to the Library of Congress. The reports would continue to be available online.

In a statement, officials with the American Library Association praised Daley for his remarks, noting that the comments 'acknowledge the importance of preserving access to federal government information and having more government information available on the Internet without charge.'

The Center for Democracy and Technology, in an e-mail, also auded the Commerce Department for providing the information for free. The center, along with OMB Watch, recently released a report of documents that should be available online but aren't.

Ari Schwartz, policy analyst for the center, said Daley's statements about the outdated purpose of the NTIS underscore the report's findings that agencies actually save money by providing the information for free on the Internet.