Agencies need to ponder Web's long-term role

This is not an easy question. Just identifying all the legal requirements is a
significant challenge.


The need isn’t in dispute. Several long-standing laws, including the Paperwork
Reduction Act and the Freedom of Information Act, call for proactive dissemination of
federal information. Printing laws direct agencies to make information products available
to federal depository libraries. The Federal Records Act imposes requirements for
preservation of agency records. Agency-specific laws regulate other aspects of
dissemination.


It doesn’t help that many current information policy laws were enacted well before
the emergence of the Internet and are now out of date.


Throwing up a Web page isn’t difficult to do today. Keeping a Web page current and
useful over the long haul, however, takes commitment and resources. Meeting the legal and
policy requirements honestly at the same time is trickier still.


Questions arise: Is a Web page a federal record? Is there a time requirement to
maintain online access to all Web pages and documents? Can an agency dispose of Web
documents? If so, when?


Many federal webmasters operate without considering these questions. Agency Web sites
have proliferated with scant central control, legal consultation or long-range planning.
Still, the rapid adoption by agencies of the Internet as a site for public access has been
a positive development.


Unfortunately, we are coming to the end of the let-a-thousand-flowers-bloom period for
federal Internet services. It’s time to impose order, discipline and permanence on
federal Internet activities.


One way to administer the wide responsibilities of a Web site is through an outside
contractor. The State Department, for example, uses the federal depository library of the
University of Illinois at Chicago. The university handles technical support, access,
security and backup.


Note that the university is also responsible for ensuring permanent storage and
accessibility to electronic State records. When a State document is removed from its
current Web page, the university deposits it in an electronic research collection that is
accessible to the public. Long-term storage and accessibility are assured.


The use of outside contractors—particularly libraries—is an attractive way to
handle federal Web record preservation and access. After all, preserving materials for
permanent use is a core function of libraries. For most agencies, a library somewhere may
already specialize in the subject area of the agency and might welcome the opportunity. If
that library has the requisite computer skills and capabilities, then
everyone—library, agency and public—will benefit.


Still, the contractor model doesn’t answer all the legal questions. Moreover, not
every agency will find a cooperating library that has a computer environment equal to the
one at the University of Illinois library. But it is worth considering.


Somewhat curiously, the Government Printing Office is also a party to the agreement
between State and the university.


GPO oversees the depository library program but appears not to have any substantive
function there. The agreement states that GPO “has final responsibility for and
custody over all federal government information products held or made accessible by”
depository libraries.


If I knew what this meant, I might be more critical. It sounds a bit like former White
House chief of staff Alexander Haig’s famous, “I am in charge” statement.
But whether GPO really has a significant role to play here, its heart is in the right
place. GPO is trying to help. I wish the National Archives and Records Administration were
as involved in finding ways to preserve public access to federal Web records.


It will take a lot of heavy lifting by agencies, NARA, GPO, the Office of Management
and Budget and maybe Congress before the government finds stable, permanent methods of
meeting information dissemination and preservation requirements for the Web.


We need to harness the creativity that created the federal Web pages to solve the
long-term problems of preservation and access. We must learn to organize the Internet
garden for its full lifecycle. 


Robert Gellman, former chief counsel to the House Government Operations
Subcommittee on Information, Justice, Transportation and Agriculture, is a Washington
privacy and information policy consultant. His e-mail address is rgellman@cais.com.
 

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