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Is it public if it’s not online?

By Sheyna Steiner ·
Monday, April 15, 2013
Posted: 1 pm ET

The Internet has revolutionized information to such an extent that it has really changed how everyone thinks about public and private zones. With the comparative ease of access of the World Wide Web, making information available to the public in a file cabinet is essentially keeping it private. At least that is what critics of last week's move by Congress contend.

Here's what happened: Last April, the Stop Trading on Congressional Knowledge, or STOCK Act became law. Last Thursday and Friday, Congress voted to repeal some of the provisions. The STOCK Act was an attempt to keep public officials from investing on insider information.

One of the controversial parts of the act was that certain officials and public employees earning more than about $120,000 per year were to report financial transactions and investment holdings online. That's now been struck. Only the president, vice president, members of Congress, congressional candidates, and officials nominated by the president and subject to Senate confirmation must report financial information online, according to the bill passed last week.

For those officials who are still subject to online disclosures, the information will no longer be in a searchable database, as was directed in the original 2012 version.

"The whole point of the STOCK Act was to limit insider trading or to root it out as it was happening -- at least expose it to the sunlight so that people can understand what is going on," says Lisa Rosenberg, government affairs consultant at the Sunlight Foundation, a nonpartisan organization working for transparency in government.

At the end of March, a federal court ruled that the online reporting requirements in the STOCK Act would be a violation of privacy of the thousands of employees subject to online reporting. The online disclosures were blocked because, "... delicate financial data dangles on the brink of diffuse dissemination," according to the court papers published by Bloomberg Law.

Instead, those public employees will file paper disclosures that will be available to the public -- but not online.

"It's not really public anymore, that is really the bottom line. They made the info so hard to get that calling it public is really a misnomer," says Rosenberg.

"If you're a criminal and want the information, you can still go get it. All they are doing is preventing the public, reporters and academics from analyzing the information and figuring out what's really going on," she says.

On Monday President Obama signed the bill S. 716 into law, officially eliminating the online reporting requirement for most employees of the executive and legislative branches. Online disclosure for select public officials goes into effect January 1, 2014.

Follow me on Twitter: @SheynaSteiner.

Senior investing reporter Sheyna Steiner is a co-author of "Future Millionaires' Guidebook," an e-book written by Bankrate editors and reporters. It's available at all the major e-book retailers.

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