Fight the online silence

"Government-enforced silence is more dangerous to our nation than thousands

of unregulated voices."

It is not often that I find myself quoting the president of an industry

association — in this case, John Haney, president of the Wisconsin Manufacturers

Commerce association — in the name of public access and the right to know.

But those words capture what is being proposed for government in the Cyber

Security Information Act (H.R. 4246) and in a proposed rule implementing

the 1999 Chemical Safety Information, Site Security and Fuels Regulatory

Relief Act.

What the two rules have in common is government-enforced silence about

public risks and vulnerabilities. And what they represent is the leading

edge of a trend in limiting public access to government-held information.

The Chemical Safety Act required the Environmental Protection Agency

to assess the benefits of giving the public access to Off-Site Consequence

Analysis (OCA) information (which covers risks posed to the public from

chemical accidents), and required the Justice Department to assess the increased

risk of terrorist and other criminal activity from posting the information

on the Internet. Justic and the EPA each proposed a rule that would prohibit

the Internet posting of OCA information. Justice determined the posting

of information could significantly increase the risk of terrorist or criminal

activity.

And what reasons did Justice offer for the draconian measure of prohibiting

meaningful public access to information specifically collected to protect

the public? The chemical disaster at the Union Carbide plant in Bhopal,

India — which Justice calls an "intentional release" despite consensus among

government officials, community groups and even industry that it clearly

was an accident — and press accounts of a group in Chechnya that planned

an attack on a chemical facility.

Those examples are patently ridiculous, but they are still better than

what is occurring in the area of critical infrastructure information, in

which industry is crying out for government protection of information about

risks and vulnerabilities in critical infrastructure.

In the Cyber Security Information bill, critical infrastructure is defined

as "facilities or services whose disruption, incapacity or destruction"

through things such as "misuse of, or by unauthorized means of, the Internet,

public or private telecommunications systems" would have a debilitating

impact on society.

What industry is asking the government for is effective silence about

the risks to which the public is exposed.

Before we go any further down this path, government needs to engage

in a public debate about which poses the greater risk to public health and

safety: government-enforced silence, or people exercising their right to

know about, and hold public actors accountable for, the risks and vulnerabilities

to which government officials expose the American people.

McDermott is an information policy analyst with OMB Watch, a government watchdog group in Washington, D.C.

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