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Is it legal to require registration to obtain US Government software or data?

For example, if a government web site makes you put in an email address before you can access public data or public software, is that legal?

I know developers and data providers like to have people register because they would like a way to contact people if there is a problem with the data or software, but I'm guessing it needs to be opt in, not required.

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There is no general rule prohibiting the U.S. government from requiring registration, for example, with an email address, in order to provide government software or data. There would only very rarely be a constitutional or statutory prohibition on doing so.

This is not a question that is governed by a single law or regulation, however. Different statutory and regulatory provisions apply to different kinds of software and different kinds of data.

In some cases there are fees authorized by law or there are legal requirements that you identify yourself, or both, for example, in certain kinds of Freedom of Information Act requests.

There is other data that the U.S. government provides without a registration requirement (e.g. much of the data that appears on websites). Different agencies would have different requirements and usually there would be multiple kinds of data subject to different rules in the same agency.

For example, the United States court system maintains data bases of court records. But, some court records require special approval to access (e.g. limited to parties or to certain officials), while others are publicly available upon payment of a fee to an account that has to have a payment arrangement but doesn't have to be an authentic description of the true user. There is other information (e.g. court rules and appellate court slip opinions) which can be obtained free of charge without registration. All of these alternative approaches are legal and authorized by law in their respective situations.

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It sounds illegal to me. Assuming the government is releasing the data to comply with the Freedom of Information Act -- as opposed to releasing it as a matter of discretion -- it is required to provide it to basically anyone who asks for it.

If they make the data available through a website that requires registration, a requester should be able to get around that by submitting a request for the underlying data via e-mail or USPS and asking that the records be shipped on some tangible medium. A denial of that request for failing to provide an e-mail address would violate FOIA, although the requester should probably expect to pay more and wait longer to get access to the records.

But that's pretty much limited to providing access to the data itself -- FOIA probably doesn't require them to let everyone play around with every data-manipulation tool they come up with and host on their websites. I can't think of anything that would reliably allow you to gain access to those services without jumping through basically whatever hoops they set up.

On a more practical note, one could probably also just set up a burner e-mail account and use an alias. As far as I know, most agencies don't really do any kind of vetting of the identities of their requesters.

  • I'm puzzled by the idea that giving data to whoever asks for it would preclude no-cost registration. I also don't see why registering an email address is significantly different from having to provide an email address or physical address to send data to. – David Thornley Sep 21 '18 at 16:51
  • You'd have to ask the OP, but I know I'd rather give out a physical address than an email address, which is a lot easier to target for junk mail. – bdb484 Sep 21 '18 at 19:25

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