The circuit

IRS story

Tell It All

When the Federal Trade Commission asked Congress to pass legislation requiring Internet companies to follow "fair information practices," House Republican leaders saw the request as fair game in the pre-election guerrilla war they are waging on the White House. The FTC wants a law requiring e-commerce companies to give consumers "conspicuous" notice when personal information is collected, options on how their personal information can be used, a chance to see what the company has collected on them and assurances that their information will be kept secure.

Too bad the federal government can't offer the same assurances, wrote House Majority Leader Dick Armey (R-Texas) in a letter to President Clinton June 16. The federal government collects far more personal information than the private sector, Armey said. He noted that the Internal Revenue Service inadvertently disclosed the financial data of 1,391 taxpayers to an accountant and apologized by offering each family a $1,000 check. "I'd be much more concerned about the IRS disclosing my personal financial information than about the GAP.com knowing how many pairs of jeans I've bought this year," Armey said.

What Government Wants You to Know

Even though Los Alamos was in the news repeatedly in the past two weeks, you would never know it by looking at the World Wide Web sites run by the Energy Department and the Los Alamos National Laboratory. It took the lab more than a week to post press releases about the missing computer hard drives on its Web site. The Energy site never had a word. Is this selective distribution of information? Post only good news, not the bad? Lesson: Trust your government selectively.

Metric Matters

Keeping a promise he made during a hearing on NASA's Mars program failures, Rep. Vernon Ehlers (R-Mich.) introduced a bill that would require federal agencies in each contract, grant or research agreement to clearly state what unit of measurement they will use. The bill, H.R. 4414, would amend the Metric Conversion Act of 1975.

Ehlers introduced the bill in response to what he called a "freshman" mistake that proved to be a disaster in calculating the distance traveled by the Mars Climate Orbiter. The orbiter's contractors used nonmetric units of measurement for the spacecraft's navigational calculations, while NASA scientists used the metric system. The result: Contractors' inability to differentiate between a yard and a meter cost taxpayers $122 million.

Government Flunks

Even the most Internet-savvy of the world's governments, including the United States, offer just a fraction of possible services online. That's the finding of researchers at Andersen Consulting, which reviewed 157 services that governments could provide online. Just 10 percent are being delivered by most countries. Even the best-connected governments have reached only 20 percent of their potential to provide online services. Among them: the United States, Australia, Singapore and Canada. Andersen Consulting is offering a handheld computer to the country that gets up to speed first. But hurry — even those devices may soon be obsolete.

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