Don't succumb to a Net-driven secrecy panic

Could the Internet provide an excuse for a new wave of government secrecy? That
is a possibility. A dispute about the disclosure of risk management plans for chemical
accidents is beginning to point in that direction.


Let’s begin with the law that generated the dispute. Under the Clean Air Act, the
Environmental Protection Agency is required to implement a program to prevent chemical
accidents. An EPA rule directs thousands of facilities to prepare risk management plans
with information about potential chemical release points and estimates of the damage and
injury that could result from an accident. The plans are supposed to become public.


Last fall, the chairman of the House Commerce Committee objected to the disclosure.
Rep. Tom Bliley (R-Va.) worries that if the information were made public on the
Internet—posted on EPA’s Web site—the worst-case-scenario data would be
useful to terrorists. He pressured EPA to stop the release of the data, and the matter is
on hold right now.


I want to clarify some of the issues to get to the Internet point. There may be a
legitimate question whether chemical accident data should be public. The federal
government collects lots of information that is not released because of the need to
protect a public or private interest. For example, we classify some information in the
interest of national security, and everyone agrees that this reason for secrecy is
justified at times. We also protect information that is private or competitively
sensitive.


We don’t keep everything secret, however, simply because it might be useful to a
terrorist. We always have to balance security concerns against the public’s interest
in overseeing the actions of government.


If we used the threat of terrorism as the only yardstick to measure public release of
information, precious little would ever be released. The resulting secrecy would cause
more harm to democratic institutions than any terrorist could.


Anyone, terrorist or other, can get on the Internet and retrieve a list of the biggest
bridges, highest dams, longest tunnels and largest hydroelectric plants. Before anyone
decides to panic about this, the same information has always been available in printed
form in almanacs and other publications readily available in every bookstore and public
library. Any terrorist who wants to blow up a bridge certainly can find out how to get the
biggest bang for his buck.


In the case of chemical accident data, people who live near a chemical plant are surely
interested in learning what risks they face. Local communities need to be ready for the
possibility of an accident so they can make contingency plans for evacuations and, if
necessary, buy equipment for protection. They must make decisions based on the risks
involved. It matters whether a problem at a chemical plant down the street could force an
evacuation of three square blocks or three square miles.


But not all details have to be public. Intermediate steps include making some data
public and sharing other data with local or state officials. I don’t have the
expertise to assess the merits here, but I do know that when chemical companies and
government officials say, “Trust us,” an average citizen will be worried indeed.


Much of the debate on releasing chemical accident data is about the fact of it
appearing on the Internet, resulting in instant and worldwide access.


The Internet should not be the issue here. Any notion today that data can be made
public but kept off the Internet is ludicrous. If you release it on disk, someone can
attach a search engine to it and put it on the Net. If you release data on paper, someone
can scan it onto a Web site. Once a reporter gets the information, directly or from a
leak, the First Amendment will prevent any restriction on its publication.


We cannot allow the Internet to be used as a new excuse for secrecy. The availability
of information to terrorists through the Net is not a justification for secrecy. The
restrictions won’t work, and they don’t make any sense.


We can certainly debate the need for secrecy of chemical accident data, so let’s
do it. But lighten up on the Internet scare tactics and stick to the merits.  


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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