Info blackout won't stop terrorists

Our congressmen continue to insist that they can control what they see as a new-fangled technology called the Internet.

The Senate, in its latest attempt to dictate what agencies can or cannot post on the Internet, wants to prevent the public from using the Freedom of Information Act to obtain Environmental Protection Agency reports about what could happen if toxic chemicals were accidentally released into the atmosphere, either by an explosion or by some other disaster.

The EPA stores the information in an electronic database and had considered making the data available to the public over the Internet. But the Senate, fearful that terrorists would use the information to make a list of easy but deadly targets for bombing, placed a gag order on the distribution of the material until the Clinton administration conducts a study to find out if the benefits of making the data public outweigh the risks of a terrorist attack.

The Senate's thinking is flawed. First, paper documents are easily scanned and put on the World Wide Web. The Senate's decision may be an inconvenience to anyone wishing to post the data on some Web site, but the data eventually will make its way onto the Internet and be as easily accessible as it would have been on the EPA's site.

Second, restricting or controlling access to the toxic-chemical information, which has, up to this point, been classified as a public document, creates a new way for Congress to rein in what information agencies choose to distribute to the public and in what form—a chilling effect that threatens to curtail the federal government's move to a digital government.

Congress needs to recognize that it cannot stop the flow of information, whether in paper or electronic form. Instead, Congress must focus on other ways to protect Americans from terrorism. Restricting information will not make the plants any safer.

The Senate does not seem to grasp that the Internet has changed the way government delivers information and services to the public. Just as TV forever changed the way candidates run for office, the Internet has changed the way government operates and how citizens interact with the government.

It is imperative that Congress embrace the Internet as a vehicle for disseminating all public documents, not just those that suit its political purposes.

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