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"Access denied"

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

personal data.

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.

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