"Conservative Culture of Information"

This New York Times article (free registration required), discusses a dramatic shift in the policy towards the information published by government organizations on the Internet. Many of these organizations spent much of the last year removing information in the interests of national security. New laws, such as the Data Quality Act, would allow any organization or individual to have information published on a government web site removed.

On the positive side, the new law would allow the public to correct glaring mistakes published by government organizations. For example, in order to encourage venture capital investment, WorldCom blatantly lied in its 1999 annual reports: "Internet bandwidth demand doubles about every three to four months." Even to this day, no one knows where this statistic came from, though it is theorized that it refers to an earlier period of growth for UUNet.

What does this have to do with the dissemination of information from government offices? Well, despite obvious flaws in the logic of such a statement, the Department of Commerce quoted the statistic in a report. Had the law been in effect, the statement could have been challenged and removed from government web sites before encouraging investors to pour ungodly amounts of money into now bankrupt telecommunications companies.

On the negative side, special interest groups are already using the law to suppress knowledge such as that found in the "National Assessment on Climate Change", watersheds in New York City, and the EPA Envirofacts database. Following a popular trend to attack the evidence for global warming, as opposed to producing contradicting evidence or hypotheses, the law has been used to challenge global warming claims made on the EPA site.

The trick would seem to be keeping public information public without spreading inaccurate or sensational information at wire speed, something the Internet seems to excel at more often than not. As the article points out, however, rather than find a balance between these two extremes, government organizations seem to be pulling information from government web sites out of hand.


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