@Info.Policy: Scrub-a-dub isn't always smart Web policy

Robert Gellman

There are many reasons to remove information from an agency Web site. Data becomes obsolete. An office moves to a new home. Political winds blow in new directions, and an agency that was pro-gizmo is now anti-gizmo. A new view of security leads to a reassessment of disclosure policy.

Some of these reasons are better than others, but the reasons may not matter much. The reality is that taking down a page is not easy to do. You might kill your page, but copies are likely to be found elsewhere on the Internet beyond your control.

Search engines such as Google.com sometimes cache copies of pages that are no longer available. Internet archives such as the Wayback Machine, at www.archive.org, maintain zillions of old pages. Anyone can make a copy of a government Web page and repost it for the world. The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives recently provided an amusing example.

ATF decided to remove resources pertaining to explosives, bomb threats and detection. The material is still available, but you have to file a written request. I'm sure all the terrorists will write in. Internet journalist Declan McCullagh discovered that the removed material was still available at the ATF site. It seems that the agency removed only one copy and didn't realize there were others. I assume it is all gone now, but that's academic. I found the same stuff elsewhere on the Web, and I didn't even try hard.

By the way, McCullagh is moderator of the Politech mailing list covering privacy, free speech and technology issues. It is an interesting and useful list, although it produces more message traffic than the site claims. Sign up at Politechbot.com.

There are two lessons here. First, an agency should think twice before scrubbing something. It probably won't work, and the removal will call attention to information that was otherwise being ignored. Once you put something out on the Net, someone else has a copy. A company can invoke copyright law to stop reuse of its material, but the federal government cannot copyright its own work.

The second lesson is for interest groups, activists and gadflies. If an agency posts something interesting, sinister or useful on the Web, do not assume it will always remain there. Today's motherhood-and-apple-pie site could turn controversial tomorrow and change radically or disappear altogether. Make a copy today.

In the past, people became significant issue brokers partly by keeping copies of newspaper clippings on a particular subject. Twenty years' worth of clippings is a tremendous resource for reporters, academics and others. You can do the same thing with the Internet.

An institutional memory is sometimes nothing more than that. Just copy those pages before they disappear. Then when the agency takes down the information, the world will beat a path to you.

Robert Gellman is a Washington privacy and information policy consultant. E-mail him at rgellman@netacc.net.

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