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HELENA - A proposal introduced Thursday in the U.S. Senate would require government agencies to publish all their public records online.

The bill would not change what is considered public information, just require online posting of records that an agency already discloses or disseminates.

It would provide free, better and faster access to those records and eliminate the need for people to sort through warehoused print documents or wait lengthy times for a public records request to be filled, said Sen. Jon Tester, who introduced the bill.

Examples of information that would be available online that may not already be available include reports of travel by executive branch officials paid for by third parties, lobbying activities and financial disclosures by high-level officials, the Montana Republican said.

"I think it just helps get information out into people's hands," Tester said. "Sifting through boxes, waiting for copies, this is going to eliminate all that."

Exceptions to what material can be posted online would follow the rules of the Freedom of Information Act, including classified military information, investigatory records for law enforcement and personnel matters. Records that deal with such matters would be kept off the Internet or portions would be redacted.

Many federal agencies are making more and more of their public records available on the Internet. But the term "public records" covers most of the documents that an agency produces, and can include millions of records that are not posted online, said Peter Scheer, executive director of the First Amendment Coalition, a California-based nonprofit that advocates for open and accountable government.

"There's definitely a gap there," Scheer said. "Lots of things that are public records are not automatically put on there."

The bill's sponsors should make sure the result is transparency and not confusion or obscurity if too much information is being put online without a practical way to sort through it, he said.

Mike Meloy, a Helena attorney who works on First Amendment issues, said the legislation's value would be in an online index of records by government agencies, such as the U.S. Forest Service. Such as index could reveal records that people might not know even exist.

"There's really no way to search that (now)," Meloy said. "I suppose you could go to a Forest Service office and plow through their stuff. But if it was online, with a search engine, it would be much easier to access."

The bill would create a 19-member advisory board that would write nonbinding guidelines for all three branches of government.

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But federal executive branch agencies would be the only ones required to post their public records online. That includes any department in the executive branch, including the Office of the President, plus military departments and government corporations.

The legislative and judicial branches would receive recommendations from the advisory board but would not be required to follow them.

Scheer said that's one shortcoming of the bill.

"As long as they're doing this, they should do this for themselves. There is no reason why Congress should keep exempting themselves from freedom of information requirements," he said.

Tester's office said the vast majority of public documents come from the executive branch, which is why the proposal specifically requires those agencies to post their records.

The bill is a companion to legislation introduced in the House by Democratic Rep. Steve Israel of New York.

 

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