Let the Web inform
Agencies would do well to follow the bumper-sticker philosophy, "If you
think education is costly, try ignorance" when deciding what information
to post or take off their World Wide Web sites.
In this issue's cover story, Federal Computer Week reports that agencies
are increasingly scrubbing their Web sites of any information they deem
sensitive or possibly dangerous if found by terrorists. Of course, few would
argue that agencies should not post information that puts Americans at risk
by making them targets of common criminals. In 1998, then-Deputy Secretary
of Defense John Hamre ordered the services to remove from their Web sites
all information that would put troops at risk such as military plans and
Since then, however, agencies have begun to remove information that
is not as clear a threat. For example, the Environmental Protection Agency
was pressured to remove information provided by companies about what would
happen in case of a chemical leak or explosion at any of 15,000 U.S. industrial
plants. The plans were part of a law requiring companies to submit the information
to the EPA in hopes of informing the public about the chemical dangers in
their regions. The FBI and Congress thought the information would be a recipe
for terrorists looking to cause the United States harm and wanted it available
only in hard copy at 50 EPA reading rooms.
But that reasoning fails to take into account the value of the benefits
the information could have provided if distributed widely over the Web.
Information is the raw material that leads to an understanding — a deeper
knowledge — of a topic. Better decisions are made and standards of living
increase. When information is walled off, people are hamstrung in their
efforts to make decisions about changing the society they live in.
In weighing what to take off or post on the Web, agencies must measure
the benefits the information would provide and compare those to the downside
risks, which in many cases can be overestimated. More information is essential
if we are to continually improve our environment, economy and government.