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The Power of the Delete Key

January 09, 2002

Forget about making online reservations for that camping trip to Yosemite. And don't even think about researching whether any companies have issued new proposals for mining or oil or gas drilling on public lands.

Visitors to most Internet sites run by the Interior Department get only a message saying that access has been shut down since Dec. 5, when a federal judge ordered the department to close Internet security holes that allowed entry to the accounts of land assets held by American Indian tribes.

The department's response, shutting down sites including the National Park Service's camping reservation system, seems like an overreaction. U.S. District Judge Royce C. Lamberth had specifically ordered that the department disconnect from the Internet ''all information technology systems that house or provide access to individual Indian trust data'' after an investigator working for Lamberth managed to hack the land trust database and its royalty funds. Cyber-security experts say the department should have been able to separate and protect the computer server containing the land royalty information without having to close down the Web sites; the department says it acted from an abundance of caution.

In some ways the shutdowns are merely an inconvenience, because a lot of Interior Department information is available offline. Department officials point out, for example, that campsites can still be reserved the old-fashioned way, by calling (800) 365-2267. But it also brings up more serious issues.

In the mid-1990s, Congress ordered the Government Printing Office, which required government agencies to distribute all of their publicly significant documents to 1,300 federal depository libraries, to replace its ink-and- paper products with electronic records. In the past, federal agencies could censor documents by deciding not to send them to the depository libraries or by going to the trouble of recalling them. Librarians say the Internet allows much greater censorship powers--for example, to unobtrusively delete any embarrassing parts of documents.

Jim Jacobs, a librarian at UC San Diego, relates an example: ''Consider what happened with the volume 'Foreign Relations of the United States 1964-68.' After that book was published and distributed, the State Department wished to withdraw it from depository libraries because of the way it detailed the U.S. role in Indonesia's deadly purge of Communists in the 1960s. It withdrew its recall order after public outcry. Imagine what would have happened if all the State Department had to do was erase a single file off a single government computer."

Congress can keep a watchdog on duty by restoring funding in the 2003 budget for the National Commission on Library and Information Science, which is due to be eliminated. Without it, there will be no one in Washington to ensure full public access to government documents.

There is no reason to think that censorship is involved in the Interior Department shutdowns on the Internet. But it illustrates how much the public depends on government Web sites, and why it needs expert help in overseeing how they operate.

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