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A Step Toward Tyranny

September 15, 2002|KARRIE PETERSON | Karrie Peterson is the government information librarian at UC San Diego.

SAN DIEGO — Knowing what government is doing is key to holding it accountable. To get this knowledge, you need access to government publications and documents. But recent trends threaten that access and may jeopardize the promise of "e-government."

The Office of Management and Budget is encouraging federal agencies to bypass the Government Printing Office and let private companies bid for their jobs. This way, public money can be saved.

Although saving taxpayer dollars is commendable, there is little agreement, even within the printing industry, that competition will drop costs below those of the centralized Government Printing Office, with its ability to command large-quantity discounts. But money isn't the real issue here.

The printing office has been pivotal in getting government information into the hands of citizens through the Federal Library Depository Program. When the government prints a federal agency's publication, the Government Printing Office, as required by law, e-mails copies to more than 1,300 depository libraries nationally. The libraries store such publications for citizen use.

The OMB claims Congress can't require the executive branch to do its printing through the Government Printing Office. It concedes that government publications should continue to be made available for the depository program, though it doesn't specify how. But as is well known in Washington, when agencies bypass, wittingly or unwittingly, the Government Printing Office, their publications never reach the depository program.

This is not the first time the Bush administration has veered away from openness and toward secrecy, and not always for national security reasons. Examples are numerous: Environmental information made available under the Clean Air Act, such as how to cope with chemical accidents, was removed from official government Web sites; it's much harder to get government documents using Freedom of Information laws; names of government appointees have been withheld; the mandated publication of historical foreign-policy documents has been delayed, as has the release of presidential papers of previous administrations. Ironically, while it's getting harder to keep tabs on government, government can find out a lot more about you, given the expanded investigatory powers permitted under the USA Patriot Act.

A big chunk of government publications is in science and technology. Guided by the principle that taxpayer-subsidized scientific and technological research should benefit all, government agencies from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration to the Department of Energy have made enormous strides in providing access to research reports. But one bright star in this firmament is about to disappear.

PubScience is a free online, searchable database that indexes and summarizes articles from more than 1,000 scientific journals that have agreed to participate. It has been helping students, researchers and ordinary citizens since October 1999. But the Department of Energy is poised to pull the plug on PubScience because the service competes with commercial products that are currently free. The operative word is "currently" because there is no guarantee that the no-cost commercial services will stay around or that they will be as comprehensive as PubScience.

For years, the information industry has contended that the government should not compete with private business. If PubScience is terminated, it will no doubt demand that other government-sponsored indexes--medical, education, etc.--be replaced by commercial ones. But let's be honest about the difference: How long will a commercial index be freely distributed to libraries and who will preserve it?

E-government won't give us the access that the OMB threatens to take away. With electronic publishing, federal agencies can easily mount and remove documents on their Web sites, and an Internet-capable computer makes it possible to download everything from national park brochures to tax forms. A lucky researcher may happen upon a publication today, but will it be there tomorrow?

In the traditional depository program, each government publication is cataloged by government and library. This means there is a permanent record of government publications and documents.

Furthermore, without the oversight of the Government Printing Office and thousands of depository librarians, government information that exists on a few government-controlled servers can quickly disappear through negligence, technological mishap or, in the case of controversial or embarrassing information, political shenanigans.

In these different scenarios, the official line is that loss of access will be more than offset by cost savings, greater national security, a stronger printing market or the convenience of e-government. But what exactly is the trade-off?

We are being asked to accept a contraction of our right to hold our government accountable by insisting that the public record be complete and accessible. But as Patrick Henry said, "The liberties of a people never were, nor ever will be, secure, when the transactions of their rulers may be concealed from them."

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