Mirror, mirror on the Web
- By Ari Schwartz
- Sep 11, 2000
Many similarities exist between e-government and e-commerce. Both government
and commercial Web sites can provide streamlined and efficient services.
Both are available around the clock to harried folks who otherwise would
have to take time off work to visit a store or office during normal business
hours or hold for "the next available operator."
But e-government sites differ in one crucial respect. The protection
of copyrighted material and other intellectual property is a central concern
of commercial Web sites, but information on government sites is public property;
it can be downloaded, copied, reformatted and redistributed. In fact, that's
what government information is all about: It belongs to and can be used
by the public.
As e-government grows, agencies must ensure that their Web sites and
online services remain a public good — owned by and accountable to the American
taxpayer. It seems, however, that some government employees, Webmasters
and contractors have not yet accepted the public-interest values that must
guide the creation and maintenance of such Web sites.
A recent experience brought this message home. My organization, the
Center for Democracy and Technology, offers online resources on a variety
of Internet policy issues. Believing in empowering citizens, we post huge
quantities of original-source information online. Sometimes we link to this
information on other sites, but because pages are likely to move or change,
we often copy information, particularly from government sources. This practice
is known as "mirroring" and is common on the Web.
Last month I received a call from an incensed government official concerned
that we had mirrored a copy of his office's home page. He insisted we had
no right to do that and demanded that we take the page down immediately.
We were using the page to illustrate a point about Internet technology,
and in such a way that there was no chance of public confusion, so I am
not sure what harm could have come from the mirroring. But I do know that
this government employee was out of line. By law, the government is not
allowed to copyright information. In fact, OMB Circular A-130 states clearly
that "agencies should not attempt to exert control over the secondary uses
of their information dissemination products."
Although the official was wrong to berate me, I am sure that he had
good intentions. His hard work had gone into creating the agency home page,
and he did not want to see it mirrored. Yet, unlike the e-commerce world,
e-government practitioners must focus on the information on their site and
not on what others are doing with it (short of misrepresentation or fraudulent
Although we used the information to illustrate a policy issue, that
need not be the case. Individuals can even legally take government information
offline and sell it. This message must especially be impressed on agency
contractors who may not share the average government employee's sense of
The goal of e-government is to enhance democracy through citizen involvement
in government based on widespread dissemination of information. The Web
has enabled agencies to make an unprecedented amount of data available for
free. It is ever more important to take pride in the fact that information
on a government Web site belongs to the public.
—Schwartz is a policy analyst at the Center for Democracy and Technology
in Washington, D.C.