Some call it one of the government's "crown jewels," a vast computer database containing the secrets and dirty laundry of America's biggest corporations.
Wall Street firms, corporate lawyers and others pay an estimated $250 million a year to be wired into this information gathered by the Securities and Exchange Commission, the government's watchdog for the business world.
Earlier this year, a wider public got its first chance for an easier look at a main source of this data--the commission's "Edgar" system. An experimental link with Edgar to the Internet, the popular network of thousands of government, university and corporate computers.
But not all approve of this link.
While regarded by some as an important means of allowing the public access to the data, others--including the SEC--say the Internet is not the best choice. Critics say Internet isn't always reliable and is obstructing efforts for broader distribution of Edgar.
"It's not like putting all of this stuff in electronic media will make it more accessible to Mom and Pop," said Thomas Vos, vice president of Bowne & Co., an electronic publishing firm in New York.
Edgar--which stands for Electronic Data Gathering, Analysis and Retrieval--was designed to automate the estimated 12 million pages of financial documents that public companies are required to file each year with the SEC.
The SEC uses the annual reports, shareholder proxy statements and other forms filed by publicly held companies to police the financial markets and prevent investor fraud.
The Edgar system also was intended to "increase the efficiency and fairness in the securities markets" by allowing a means for quick distribution of corporate information gathered by the SEC.
After a three-year delay and a $20-million cost overrun, Edgar started last spring with 540 companies beginning mandatory electronic filing of documents. Currently, about 3,500 companies are on the system, and all 15,000 companies will be phased in by 1996.
By itself, Edgar would only be available to the public through one of the SEC's three public reference rooms, or, if users had the money, a direct computer feed to their home or business.
Rep. Edward Markey, D-Mass., last year sought grant money to make Edgar available on the Internet, as part of an experiment on how to handle enormous volumes of computerized government records. The records are available on the Internet a day after they're filed with the SEC.
Some had been critical of the SEC, saying it wasn't doing enough to create inexpensive, electronic access to public information.
"You can't hold American data hostage, and you can't auction it off to the highest bidder," said Carl Malamud, president of Internet Multicasting Service.
Malamud, who runs the computer system that handles the Internet link to the SEC data, said between 3,500 and 4,000 corporate documents are now snatched off the Internet daily.
For such critics, the Internet link was a coup: Cheap public access for investors, job hunters, researchers and political activists.
Some believe the link sets an important precedent for how government information is priced and sold to the public in the digital age.
"It was kind of a wake-up call," said James Love, director of the Taxpayer Assets Project, a watchdog group affiliated with consumer activist Ralph Nader. "I think there is a sense that there is going to be increased competition and lower costs for a lot of government information."
The link also is seen as a prime example of Vice President Al Gore's push to create a new national computerized information system.
But detractors say the Internet isn't easy to use at first, and doesn't always locate documents. While it's cheap when compared with expensive commercial databases, it still costs money and requires a basic investment into computer equipment that many Americans can't afford.
John Lane, the SEC's chief information officer, adds that the Internet project has slowed development of new products by private industry to provide the public more affordable access to the documents.
"The Internet project right now is sort of a complicating factor in the market development," Lane said.
He said some private companies that sell SEC data to mainly corporate clients delayed plans for wider marketing of Edgar information until results of the Internet project have become clear.
The industry that gathers and sells SEC information has estimated total sales of $250 million a year, said Tim McLean, spokesman for Disclosure Inc., a Bethesda, Md.-based company that offers a sophisticated computerized library of all SEC documents going back to 1979.
Disclosure is a leader in the industry that buys the raw corporate data from the SEC and cleans it up, making it easier for Wall Street brokers, lawyers and others to search the vast database.
Whether Internet has permanently taken business away from firms like Disclosure isn't clear.
William C. O'Conor, a vice president at Disclosure, said he doesn't view Internet as a competitor. On the contrary, he says the Internet project could expand businesses such as his.
"It may expose a larger market to information that they may not have (known about) in the past," he says. "And so it could be beneficial."