Fight the online silence
- By Patrice McDermott
- May 22, 2000
"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
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
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.