Access to Information via the Internet is a hotly contested topic that has infiltrated the debates on Capitol Hill in recent months. Bills like FASTR and SOPA, as well as the death of Aaron Schwartz have captured the attention of Internet activists as well as Internet skeptics for months, but what do these things mean when it comes to what kind of information we will have access to in the future? The Internet is a complicated and difficult to manage beast, and the U.S. Government is struggling to keep up.
On May 13, 2012 a petition was posted on We the People that would require free access to publicly funded scientific research. The goal of such a bill would be to allow online access to publically funded information free of charge to anyone with Internet access. This free exchange of information would encourage innovation as well as expedite the research process that would result in a faster return of taxpayer investment on scientific research.
The petition has earned over 65,000 signatures and has since been responded to by Dr. John Holdren of the Office of Scientific and Technology Policy. The response supported the desire for free access to publicly funded information, and outlined a plan for future legislation that would require federal agencies with more than $100 million in research and development funds “to develop plans to make the results of federally-funded research publicly available free of charge within 12 months after original publication”. The plan would also require that agencies work toward improving the management of publicly funded scientific data in order to promote job growth and scientific progress.
The petition led to the introduction of the Fair Access to Science and Technology Research Act (FASTR) on Feb. 14, 2013 to the House by Rep. Mike Doyle (D-Pa.). The bill shares many similarities to the plan posted by Holdren in that it would require agencies that allocate more than $100 million to research budgets to require their grant recipients to post their findings and articles online free of charge within six months of publication. The bill is co-sponsored by Reps. Zoe Logfren (D-Calif.) and Kevin Yonder (R-Kan.). Senators John Cornyn (R-Texas) and Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) plan to introduce a companion bill to the Senate.
FASTR was presented on the heels of the widely publicized suicide of Aaron Swartz, the hacker activist suspected of downloading nearly 5 million documents from JSTOR, an online subscription database of academic research. Many of the articles within the JSTOR database were funded, at least in part, by the government. If convicted of the allegations, Swartz could have faced up to 35 years in prison and fines up to $1 million. Swartz’s family argues that the aggressive charges against him led to the 26-year-old programmer’s suicide in January of this year.
With Swartz as the current face of open information laws, and bills like FASTR being brought to the table with a substantial public base of support, the Internet’s role in information access has grown into a hot topic on Capitol Hill. Bills like the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) have also drawn attention to the government’s role when it comes to the Internet, and the public’s effect on Internet policy when it goes too far. Information access and censorship are issues that have proved to be important to Internet users around the world, and issues that the public is significantly better versed in than the government. While issues involving national security and military intelligence are swept under the rug, often unnoticed by the public, policy surrounding the Internet has often resulted in lively public debate, and sometimes, public outcry. This public response has forced policy makers to be extremely careful when they write bills that could censor information, or when they oppose bills that could lead to more open access to information.
Bills like FASTR and SOPA have important implications for the kinds of information that will be available to journalists and scholars to disseminate to the public. Instead of government funded works being locked into subscription-only archives like JSTOR, the material will be accessible to everyone with access to an Internet connection. Not only will this information allow for academics to conduct better research, but it would also grant journalists and citizens access to more complete and reliable information without an expensive subscription. This bill also has the potential to lead to further legislation that would require all government information to be posted on the web.
It is still to early to fully appreciate the implications of bills such as FASTR on what it will mean for future legislation regarding access to information. It will be up to us as Internet users to protect the information we pay for and protect our rights under the First Amendment as we depend more and more on the web in our daily lives.
Lipinski, Ann Marie. “Eugene Patterson and Aaron Swartz: Ghosts speaking across the page”. Nieman Journalism Lab. 20 Feb. 2013. Web.
Martinez, Jennifer. “White House orders agencies to open access to research”. The Hill. 22 Feb. 2013. Web.
Peterson, Andrea. “The Other Aaron’s Law: How FASTR Could Help Americans Access the Research They Paid For”. Think Progress. 16 Feb. 2013. Web.
“Require free access over the Internet to scientific journal articles arising from taxpayer-funded research”. We the People. 13 May. 2012. Web.
Sasso, Brendan. “Bill would require free access to federally funded research”. The Hill. 14 Feb. 2013. Web.
“SOPA bill shelved after global protests from Google, Wikipedia and others”. The Washington Post. 20 Jan. 2012. Web.
Click below to read FASTR in full
Click below to read SOPA in full