The Securities and Exchange Commission is considering ways to keep a popular Internet data base of corporate filings from going off-line as a free service this fall, government officials said this week.

The data base, called the Electronic Data Gathering Analysis and Retrieval System, or Edgar, is a vast trove of earnings reports, shareholder proxy statements, and other corporate records submitted to the SEC.

Edgar was launched in 1993 when the Wall Street regulator began requiring that publicly held companies start submitting their filings electronically. Today, nearly 80% of these firms are on Edgar, and the rest are expected to be on the system by next year, SEC officials said.

As a result, a whole cottage industry has sprung up to give investors on-line access to Edgar data. Firms such as Mead Data Central, Disclosure Inc., and Standard & Poor's Corp. offer same-day access to Edgar filings for a fee.

But last year, New York University and a nonprofit organization called the Internet Multicasting Service began making Edgar documents available for free on the Internet's World Wide Web, the multimedia, point-and-click section of the huge data network.

Though the Internet-Edgar offering provides corporate data one day later than the commercial services, its no-cost availability has made it a popular stop for Internet surfers, including many trust bankers looking to keep their research costs down. More than 16,000 Edgar documents are viewed on the Internet daily, according to Internet Multicasting.

But this month, Carl Malamud, president of Internet Multicasting, said grant money from the National Science Foundation and private companies that fund the Edgar project will run out Oct. 1, leaving the SEC scrambling to maintain the service on the World Wide Web.

At an Edgar conference in Washington last week, SEC Chairman Arthur Levitt Jr. pledged to try to find a way to keep the data base on the Internet.

"I want to find ways of delivering this service at the lowest possible cost to the most possible users," Mr. Levitt told those at the conference. "The Internet is one way. I'm sure there are others."

Mr. Malamud said the Internet service costs about $175,000 a year to run.

Options the SEC is considering involve letting a private firm maintain a no-cost Internet-Edgar data base or developing an offering itself, said David Copenhafer, chief information officer at the SEC.

"We understand that we need to keep some type of presence on the Internet," Mr. Copenhafer said, adding that a number of federal agencies have volunteered to help the SEC develop a service.

Clifford T. Boro, president of Internet Financial Network, a commercial vendor of Edgar documents, said his company is "seriously exploring" the possibility of developing its own free Internet service to complement his real-time, fee-based system, called EdgarWatch.

"It would be a low-octane version of what we now provide to our clients," he said, "but it would be much easier to navigate than the current Internet system."

Mr. Boro said that, after he heard of the pending demise of the Internet service last week, he contacted the SEC and a number of other Edgar data providers with the aim of setting up a consortium to support a no-cost data base available to the public. But "that idea is almost dead," he added, as other companies appear to be developing plans for their own Internet-based systems.

He is concerned the SEC may try to develop its own Edgar-Internet access product that could compete too closely with his and other providers' fee- based offerings, Mr. Boro added.

Internet Financial Network was started a year ago, Mr. Boro said, to provide easy access to Edgar documents at a lower overall cost than the major on-line data vendors. While other services' prices are based on the time users spend searching and downloading documents, he said, EdgarWatch charges only $12.50 per filing.

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