Mirror, mirror on the Web

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

public service.

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.


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