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Excising Information
by Marydee Ojala, Editor

The U.S. government's response to terrorism—its wholesale removal of data from public Web sites—has a depressingly familiar ring to information professionals. Consider this headline, "Washington Feeling Insecure About Non-Secret Information." Sounds very similar to this one, "U.S. More Tightlipped Since Sept. 11," doesn't it? The first is from The New York Times and is dated August 30, 1987; the latter is an Associated Press release dated November 15, 2001.

In the rush to secure the nation, government officials have once again looked to restricting access to information as a cure-all. We have statements from them decrying the availability of sensitive information and moaning that even pieces of non-sensitive information, when put together from disparate sources, could be transformed into sensitive data. In the 1980s, that went by the Mosaic Theory moniker.

No one disagrees that some information should remain secret, but many disagree that all information has the potential of revealing secrets. Why such haste to remove data from the Internet? Things have changed in the past decade. Information is more obvious, more ubiquitous, and more of it is in electronic form. In the late 1980s, those with access to electronic information numbered in the thousands. Web technology has bumped that up to the millions. This is no longer information for the elite; it's information for the masses. Governments have a tendency towards distrusting the masses.

Information is difficult to totally expunge from the Web, however. With the Wayback Machine, Internet Archives, and cached pages, there's every possibility that data taken down from primary Web pages still exists somewhere, carefully preserved for whatever posterity it deserves.

Note too that information extinction is not solely an online issue. Printed government reports are being pulled from depository libraries. The indexes, whether in print or online, that point to those reports are now inaccurate. It's the physical equivalent of dead links. Not all information disappears because of censorship, either. The U.S. Patent Office plans to discard older patents, digitizing them for preservation. Patent researchers note that the marginalia will be lost in the process and fear that computer access will not be as complete as the present paper system.

It's understandable that military Web sites, the Nuclear Regulatory Agency, and the Energy Department were the first to remove information. Some have been reinstated. Odd was the Federation of American Scientists, an organization dedicated to unfettered access to information, which deleted data from its Web site.

More paradoxically, as governments move towards information removal, the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe has been encouraging greater rights of access to environmental information. Known colloquially as the Aarhus Convention, it entered into force on October 30, 2001. Among the signatories are countries not traditionally known for championing the public's right to know, such as Albania, Belarus, Romania, and Ukraine. Those favoring transparency in government, notably Denmark, have also signed.

The argument between information access and censorship is not new. The philosophical lines between the two points of view are clear and have been for decades. This time around, however, there's more information disappearing than ever before. Using terrorism as an excuse to pull information that should be public is detrimental to a democratic society and repugnant to online professionals.

Marydee OjalaMarydee Ojala ( is editor of ONLINE

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