Questions About Online Data

June 3, 2002


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CAN the easy distribution of data promised by the Internet
actually bring the type of scrutiny that ultimately leads
to less information being available?

That is the question being raised by a new law called the
Data Quality Act, which requires the government to set
standards for the accuracy of scientific information used
by federal agencies. It is the latest move from Washington
highlighting the balance of risks and rewards when
disseminating information on the Internet.

The law, which takes full effect on Oct. 1, creates a
system under which anyone could point out errors in
documents; if an error is confirmed, an agency would have
to remove the data from government Web sites and

The Data Quality Act, along with recent efforts by
government agencies to scrub their Web sites of information
to guard national security, indicate a substantial shift to
a more conservative culture of information, said Darrell
West, a political scientist at Brown who tracks government
information on the Web.

Though the Internet created fewer fortunes than had been
expected, it did deliver riches of information, creating an
age of government disclosure not seen before. Not so long
ago, the mantra was openness; some legislators even
scrambled to get lists of campaign contributors into
cyberspace where the voters could see.

But that age may be over.

"The open-access people just
put things online and worried about the consequences
later," Professor West said. "Now we're hitting the

The Center for Regulatory Effectiveness, a primary backer
of the Data Quality Act, has already started requesting
changes in government information that is published in
print and online.

This year, the center requested that the United States
Global Change Research Program withdraw dissemination of
the National Assessment on Climate Change on the basis of
"numerous data quality and scientific flaws," according to
a letter posted on the group's Web site.

The center also asked the Environmental Protection Agency
to modify its Web site on global warming to reflect the
scientific uncertainties about global climate change.

William Kelly, western representative for the center, said
the poor quality of federal data created problems for
everyone who used it, from regulators to consumers.

"With the blossoming of the Internet, it's turned into a
huge problem for industry," Mr. Kelly said. "Agencies were
encouraged to post virtually everything on the Internet. It
wasn't such a problem when people had to go through a
Freedom of Information Act request."

Some watchdog groups say that agencies need to create
policies on how to treat information on the Internet,
arguing that otherwise, haphazard decisions would lead to
more restrictions.

"The problem is, it's much easier to make decisions about
taking down information," said Ari Schwartz, associate
director of the Center for Democracy and Technology, a
nonprofit group in Washington. "The policy seems to be,
take everything down, and we'll make decisions later."

Employees of the Interior Department learned the
consequences of that approach earlier this year, when a
federal judge ordered all the department's computer
communications shut because its Web sites were vulnerable
to hacking. Agencies fielded complaints from a wide range
of people, from those planning vacations to national parks
to those seeking the status of bird species. Most of the
its Web sites have since been restored.

Removing information from Web sites became more of a
government interest after Sept. 11, as agencies took down
information they thought might be useful to terrorists.

A nonprofit group in Washington called OMB Watch is trying
to assess just how much information agencies removed from
public Web sites under the new directives. The group sent
requests under the Freedom of Information Act to a dozen
agencies in January. So far, only the Environmental
Protection Agency has sent back a list.

According to OMB Watch, E.P.A. officials have restored much
of the information that they withdrew from its Web sites
last fall, including pages dealing with watersheds in New
York City and the Envirofacts database, which allows users
to retrieve information about air pollution, chemicals at
government and business installations, water pollution and

Responses to the group's inquiry indicate that other
agencies may have removed a significant amount of
information from the Web. The Energy Department, according
to OMB Watch, reported that it had stacks of information
waiting to be organized before it could be sent.

"We have nothing we can nail them down on, and we have no
index of what they had in the past," said Sean Moulton, a
senior policy analyst with OMB Watch. He said the
directives to remove data and the new data-quality
guidelines were part of "an overarching mosaic that is
about restricting information and removing information from
public access."

"Unfortunately," Mr. Moulton said, "Sept. 11 is being
utilized as a pivot point for industry to push an agenda
they already had."

OMB Watch has advocated creation of an office that would
oversee what data agencies publish online and the security
measures they use.

But even when done with care for quality and security,
publishing on the Internet can still bring unexpected
trouble to agencies.

Five years ago, the Social Security Administration set up a
service on its Web site that let individuals look up their
income histories and check what benefits were available.
People had to enter five pieces of information: full name,
Social Security number, date of birth, place of birth and
mother's maiden name.

"By requiring those five items, we felt that was adequate
security. It was addressed," said Mark Hinkle, a spokesman
for the Social Security Administration.

That is more information than most people need now to check
their bank accounts online, but the agency received a
letter from several senators with concerns that hackers
could steal individuals' personal information from the

Though no fraud was ever reported, the agency took down the
database. Now, Social Security sends earnings records each
year by mail.