Information Today
Volume 19, Issue 5 — May 2002
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IT Feature •
Removing Information from the Public Web
An ITI Snap Poll drew heavy response and many interesting comments
by Paula J. Hane

There's no question that we've all felt the effects of heightened security measures since September 11. Manyhave declared that life in the U.S. will never be the same following the terrorist acts and the ensuing sense of vulnerability. Our airports, borders, and public spaces have all been tightened down. But what are the implications of removing "sensitive information" from the public domain on the basis that it could be used for terrorism?

To gauge our readers' opinions on the matter of diminished access to Web-based information, we posted a snap poll on the Information Today, Inc. Web site that read as follows:

Many government agencies and some companies are removing information from their Web sites in response to concerns about security. Is this restricted access to information justified under our current circumstances? Yes. No. Please comment.

Because of the large number of responses and comments, the poll was left up longer than usual. It ran from December 2, 2001 until March 5, 2002. It garnered 577 votes, of which 259 (45 percent) said yes, restricted access is justified, and 318 (55 percent) said no, it's not. While the votes were split by a fairly small margin, the respondents' comments leaned much more in support of the "no" vote, with 26 (70 percent of those commenting) taking the time to express their views, some of them quite passionately. Just 11 people wrote in support of the "yes" vote.

A few of the "yes" comments were very definite about the national security issues that are involved with restricted access and the "extraordinary" circumstances we are now experiencing. One respondent said, "We have enjoyed unlimited freedom for many years but I'm afraid that some of our rights and privileges may have to be sacrificed in the name of security." Another noted that the restrictions are justified because providing easily accessible information amounts to "doing the homework for the bad guys." Others said it's better to be safe than sorry.

One very thoughtful response from a librarian indicated "great concerns about the abuse of this very important power" and said that his/her "yes" vote was "highly limited." The comments continued, "I don't believe it's in our national interests to Web-publish detailed instructions for avoiding airport security [as reported by the GAO], but I am concerned that 'national security' will become an umbrella to hide everything from Enron connections to poor auditing to general sloppiness and incompetence."

Several people called the removal of information an overreaction or a "knee-jerk reaction" and asked for restraint and common sense to prevail. A number pointed out the difficulties in determining the restrictions. One questioned: "Where does one draw the line when removing information? Who decides what can remain and what should be removed for 'our safety?' What do they know about the many uses of this information?" Several of the respondents pointed out that access to information is the basis for the advancement of knowledge and technological improvements. Others called the removal of information "feel-good rubbish" and part of a national "hysteria."

On December 5 (shortly after the poll was posted), a district court judge ordered the Department of the Interior to disconnect its computers from the Internet because of security concerns over the accounting system that managed Indian land royalties. The effects were wide-ranging. All of the National Park Service sites went down, as did the U.S. Geological Survey, the Bureau of Land Management, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and others. Four months later, most but not all of the department's access has been restored. According to a report in Wired, Interior Secretary Gale Norton still can't send e-mail. One of our poll respondents commented on his inability to reach the National Park Service's Pearl Harbor Web site and called it "shameful conduct" on the part of the court and the department.

Looking at the Big Picture
The removal of government information has certainly not been limited to the Department of the Interior or just to the federal government. OMB Watch, a group that promotes "government accountability," has been keeping a list of information that's been removed from federal and state government Web sites ( It's definitely worth a look. The list ranges widely and includes transportation data, maps, pipeline data, environmental data such as air and water quality, documents in the National Archives, and risk-management and emergency-response plans.

In March, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced that it would no longer allow direct access to the Envirofacts databases. It stated that "As part of our continuing efforts to respond to Homeland Security issues ... starting April 1, 2002, Direct Connect access will no longer be available to the general public. Direct Connect access to Envirofacts will only be available to U.S. EPA employees, U.S. EPA Contractors, the Military, Federal Government, and State Agency employees." Limited access to Envirofacts databases continues to be available to the public via the Envirofacts site (

Rather than subsiding, the issue of government-information removal from the public Web has actually escalated in the last few months with the latest executive directive. On March 19, White House chief of staff Andrew Card released a memo to all heads of executive departments and agencies that called for "an immediate reexamination" of current measures for identifying and protecting information on weapons of mass destruction. But the memo expands the information to include "other information that could be misused to harm the security of our Nation and the safety of our people."

An accompanying memo from the Information Security Oversight Office specified that information that could be used to help someone develop or utilize weapons of mass destruction should be kept classified or reclassified. It also called for departments to protect "Sensitive But Unclassified Information." The memo stated, "The need to protect such sensitive information from inappropriate disclosure should be carefully considered, on a case-by-case basis, together with the benefits that result from the open and efficient exchange of scientific, technical, and like information." This caused a number of media observers and public-interest advocates to express concerns about this vague new category and the possible effects on the public's right to know. Given such a gray area between public and classified information, some worry that this would also sweep away information that's important for public safety.

Libraries are rightfully concerned. Patrice McDermott, assistant director of ALA's Office of Government Relations, commented on the "sensitive but classified" category. "Sensitive can mean anything. It has no legal definition." She noted that this could encompass anything that an agency's officials wanted to hide or that made someone nervous. She continued: "In the past few years we've seen a wealth of government information posted. Now we have a situation where, at least for the foreseeable future, we're certain to see a chilling effect." She also said she was disappointed that there hasn't been a general public discussion about balancing the risks of making information available against not making it available—and there should be.

Depository libraries have been dealing with issues related to the destruction and removal of federal depository library documents. On March 21, the Association of Research Libraries (ARL) released a memo,prepared by Thomas Susman of Ropes & Gray, that responds to questions raised by a number of ARL directors concerning these issues. Here's the situation as described by that memo:

In October 2001, the U.S. Geological Survey requested that the Government Printing Office instruct Federal Depository Libraries that received a CD-ROM on characteristics of large surface-water supplies in the United States to destroy their copies. Shortly thereafter, the Superintendent of Documents ordered those libraries participating in the Federal Depository Library Program to withdraw this item and immediately destroy it. Subsequently, the Federal Bureau of Investigation visited several Federal Depository Libraries to determine whether that order had been carried out. This occurred without consultation with the GPO or the Geological Survey (U.S.G.S.).

The memo (available at reviews the legal responsibilities of both the federal
depository libraries and the Government Printing Office, while highlighting a number of key policy considerations. Briefly, it clarifies that documents distributed through the Federal Depository Library Program are not the property of the receiving library (but remain the property of the U.S. government), while documents purchased by depository libraries are not depository materials and are thus not subject to government control. However, the memo warns that libraries are likely to face acute and increasingly more complex issues as the restrictions on government information escalate.

Historical Perspective
Walking the fine line between responding to concerns about our homeland security and ensuring public access to information has never been tested more than since September 11. Indeed, all previous concernsover "sensitive" information pale in light of our current circumstances and the complexity of easy Internet access to the data we now enjoy. Our continuing challenge must be to seek that delicate balance.

Looking back in our history, the dilemma of security vs. access to information has been a recurring theme, especially with regard to scientific data. In 1994, the U.S. National Committee for CODATA (Committee on Data for Science and Technology), which was organized under the National Research Council's Commission on Physical Sciences, Mathematics, and Applications, established the Committee on Issues in the Transborder Flow of Scientific Data. Its aim was "to examine the current state of global access to scientific data, to identify strengths, problems, and challenges that exist today or appear likely to arise in the next few years, and to recommend actions to build on those strengths and ameliorate or avoid those problems." In 1997, the National Academy Press published a report issued by the committee titled "Bits of Power: Issues in Global Access to Scientific Data" ( The following paragraph from this report summarizes the key finding:

Based on its deliberations and understanding of the issues involved, the committee believes that the following overarching principle should guide all policy decisions concerning the management and international exchange of scientific data in the natural sciences: The value of data lies in their use. Full and open access to scientific data should be adopted as the international norm for the exchange of scientific data derived from publicly funded research. The public-good interests in the full and open access to and use of scientific data need to be balanced against legitimate concerns for the protection of national security, individual privacy, and intellectual property.
Five years later we're still grappling with the issue of balance. We can only hope that the officials in our government's agencies and departments use the utmost care and common sense in their decisions.
For More Information

Guidance on Homeland Security Information memos, March 19, 2002

Office of Homeland Security

Information Security Oversight Office

OMB Watch, "Access to Government Information Post September 11th"

Federation of American Scientists' Project on Government Secrecy

Investigative Reporters and Editors, "Security vs. Open Records"

Electronic Frontier Foundation, "Chilling Effects of Anti-Terrorism"
'National Security' Toll on Freedom of Expression

See also Laura Gordon-Murnane's forthcoming "Access to Government Information in a Post 9/11 World" in the June issue of  Searcher. She examines the development of an electronic information policy under the Clinton administration (the Electronic Freedom of Information Act and other key legislation) and discusses how those policies have changed during the Bush administration since September 11. Gordon-Murnane also talks about issues of concern for government agencies in developing information policies for the future. She urges information professionals to work through their professional associations to help guide the government's policies.

Paula J. Hane is editor of NewsBreaks, contributing editor of  Information Today, a former reference librarian, and a long-time online searcher. Her e-mail address is

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