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State agencies pull information from Web sites

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  1. Freedom of Information
From the Fall 2002 issue of The News Media & The Law, page 41.

From the Fall 2002 issue of The News Media & The Law, page 41.

By Gil Shochat

In New York state, the locations of power plants, nuclear reactors and power lines are no longer available on government Web sites.

In Iowa, architectural drawings of schools, public utilities, airports and some local government buildings once available online are no longer available.

In Washington, sensitive information given to the state by federal agencies and assessments of the vulnerability of state infrastructure are no longer subject to disclosure. State water resource locations as well as a map of Washington’s Department of Emergency Services have all been removed.

Critics say that since September 11, states have removed information from Web sites with few guidelines and little public discussion regarding what they eliminated.

“There has been almost no leadership or discussion at the state level on what is being taken off the Internet. Useful information that citizens use regarding utilities, gas mains, shipments of waste through communities and what chemical waste stored on site has been taken off various state Web sites,” said Sean Moulton of OMB Watch, a Washington-based government watchdog group.

Officials defend their actions as necessary to prevent valuable information that could be misused against the American people.

“We tried to protect records from individuals [who] would commit terrorist acts against the public,” said Elaine Rose, Senior Assistant Washington Attorney General.

“We’ve taken information relating to military bases and tsunami landslide reports … off the Internet,” said Nancy Jackson, communications director of Washington’s Department of Information Services.

Also removed from public access in Washington state are records “regarding the government’s emergency response efforts,” Rose said.

“Terrorists have targeted first responders in the Middle East. They know that the police come from a certain direction in response to an emergency and they target them,” Rose said.

While critics concede that certain information posted on state Web sites should be reexamined in light of the September 11 terrorist attacks, many claim that information is being taken away from the public in a haphazard way.

“What troubles me is the willy-nilly approach we have seen since September 11 to quickly pull things off the Internet and then talk about putting it back up — maybe — at a later date,” said Charles Davis, executive director of the Freedom of Information Center at the University of Missouri School of Journalism.

What states have or have not removed from their Web sites follows no discernible pattern and most decisions on what to maintain or remove are made internally. While some states have opted to remove information on water sources, crop dusters and driver’s licenses from their sites, others have left this information untouched.

In Vermont, for example, the state removed information from its Web site describing the location of existing and proposed wells and their source locations. The decision was made internally without public input.

“We did not want to provide our entire database on water source locations and source protection areas on the Internet where it could be easily acquired and misused,” said Elizabeth Hunt, Source Water Protection Chief for the State of Vermont.

Hunt said, however, that the information is still available on a case-by-case basis to environmental consultants who may need to use the information in specific geographic areas.

Getting information on particular lakes or streams “is crucial in order to implement effective watershed protection measures and to know how much treatment water from different sources might need,” said Paul Orum, director of the Working Group on Community Right-to-Know, who insists that this type of information should remain widely available. “If a watershed is well protected with natural vegetation it will need much less treatment than watersheds in more developed areas.”

A report from OMB Watch pointed to information removed by New Jersey officials: “Information, collected under its Community Right-to-Know Survey, on 30,000 private sector facilities that must report on chemical storage, including quantities and types of containers, for about 1,000 to 1,200 different chemicals. This information had been available online for about 18 months. Firefighters were increasingly using this data, accessing it on the way to fires.”

“Why should we publicize this information on our Web site?” asked Allan Edwards, director of pollution prevention and release prevention for the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection, who cites the terrorist concerns for pulling this data. Edwards also acknowledged the information was pulled after private discussions between the state Attorney General’s office and various other “lead agencies” that have taken place.

Meanwhile, Pennsylvania shut down a Web service that gave people access to maps of Pennsylvania’s telecommunications network including locations of fiber-optic cable networks, school districts, hospitals, satellite uplinks and microwave sites.

“This information was used for economic development when, for example, companies were looking to move to a place in Pennsylvania with good Internet access. It also was used heavily by libraries and students doing research,” said Scott Elliott, press secretary with Pennsylvania’s Office for Information Technology.

“Taking down this information was a joint decision between our agency, FEMA, the FBI and the state police and these agencies will be involved in deciding in what form this information will reappear on the Internet,” Elliott added.

Elliott also said that his agency “has no formal process in place” when it comes to deciding what is removed from Web sites.

A delicate balance since September 11

The patriotic after-effects of September 11 and the quiescent public reactions to government information restrictions have given various state agencies relative freedom to control what information they provide both on and off their Web sites.

According to a study conducted by the Pew Internet and American Life Project, “Some 69 percent of Americans say the government should do everything it can to keep information out of terrorists’ hands, even if that means the public will be deprived of information it needs or wants. Similar percentages of Americans approve of officials’ steps to remove information from government Web sites that could be useful to terrorists.”

The fear of being seen as unpatriotic has had a chilling effect on this debate.

“Removing information from the public domain was about patriotism in the beginning,” said Deb Kristensen, a lobbyist who represented the Idaho Press Club and the Idaho Newspaper Association in that state’s recent fight over restricting public access to government information. “Nobody wanted to seem unpatriotic.”

“What we did was come in and talk to the legislature, telling them that they cannot shut down the government and access to government information. If they do that, then they would let the terrorists win,” Kristensen added.

“What we ended up with was a good compromise bill,” she said. “[The final bill] kept the burden on government agencies to show that the release of information would jeopardize the public.”

“There was an opportunity to go too far in shutting down government information in light of 9-11 and everyone’s concerns,” said George Eskridge, an Idaho state senator who helped defeat several bills that would have restricted public access to government information in that state.

Greater debate is needed over what information should be kept on the Internet, Moulton said.

Critics point to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency as a model for responsible Web site management. After hastily pulling information from its site after September 11, the EPA established a systematic review process to decide what information should be posted on its site. It did this after OMB Watch requested a list of the information that was removed.

“Not many states have come up with logical criteria to evaluate what should stay or be removed from their Web sites,” Moulton said.