$42.5 billion of American public funds allocated to improving internet access in underserved communities in the USA could be used without public scrutiny after being given exemption from the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) and the Privacy Act.
A story in the Washington Examiner reveals that the funds, part of the $1.2 trillion infrastructure package passed by the Senate in August, have been exempted in order to reduce red tape and time lags in the distribution of broadband funds during the coronavirus pandemic. This was perceived as necessary due to the additional demand for high-quality internet as people were forced online for work and schooling.
Aaron Mackey, an attorney at not-for-profit digital rights group the Electronic Frontier Foundation said the bill "established secrecy as the default" and said he was unaware of any past government spending program of this size and scope where FOIA and the Privacy Act did not apply.
Voices concerned at the move are worried that without proper checks and balances the funds may not help enough low-income people and instead become a form of ‘slush fund’ for the telecom industry. The fund will be distributed by the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) which is part of the Department of Commerce, rather than via an independent agency such as the Federal Communications Commission (FCC).
However a supportive voice for the move, Senator Angus King of Maine, said that the move was necessary as passage via FOIA and APA would open the door to lawsuits challenging the distribution of funds and slowing critical broadband provision.
“The burdensome administrative requirements of the APA are not really necessary,” King said, highlighting that states would play the role of providing transparency and accountability in the process.
The disputed funds form part of $65 billion allocated to ensuring "ensuring every American has access to reliable high-speed internet" as part of Biden’s $1 trillion national infrastructure plan. Although the bill has been passed by the Senate, progress is being stalled by disputes over wider economic and fiscal ramifications of the bill. Outspoken Democratic Senator. Joe Manchin of West Virginia was quoted as saying "This is not how the United States Congress should operate," Manchin said. "It’s time our elected leaders in Washington stop playing games."