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Free Government Information (FGI) is a place for initiating dialogue and building consensus among the various players (libraries, government agencies, non-profit organizations, researchers, journalists, etc.) who have a stake in the preservation of and perpetual free access to government information. FGI promotes free government information through collaboration, education, advocacy and research.

Terabytes of Enron data have quietly gone missing from the Department of Energy

This is yet another disturbing example of data loss documented by our friends at MuckRock. Evidently, a large amount of data from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) having to do with the infamous Enron Corporation has gone missing and even FERC staff do not know where it went.

How many examples will we need to post before libraries and archives get with the program and try and figure out ways to collect, archive, preserve and give access to born-digital information posted on .gov sites? And how does this particular example of data loss NOT happen again in the brave new world of open government data (aka H.R. 4174 the Foundations for Evidence-Based Policymaking Act of 2018 which was recently signed into law and described by Alex Howard)? If you’re as concerned as I am, you’ll contact FERC and request a copy of their data for your library.

Government investigations into California’s electricity shortage, ultimately determined to be caused by intentional market manipulations and capped retail electricity prices by the now infamous Enron Corporation, resulted in terabytes of information being collected by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. This included several extremely large databases, some of which had nearly 200 million rows of data, including Enron’s bidding and price processes, their trading and risk management systems, emails, audio recordings, and nearly 100,000 additional documents. That information has quietly disappeared, and not even its custodians seem to know why…

…While terabytes of information has disappeared, up to 4,516 documents remain available through a pair of predefined searches of FERC’s eLibrary. While FERC claims that they, not Lockheed Martin or CACI, do offer a trio of Enron datasets on CD, FERC has not responded to repeated requests for these datasets sent over the past two months.

via Terabytes of Enron data have quietly gone missing from the Department of Energy • MuckRock.

Government shutdown causing information access problems

Twitter and newspapers are buzzing with complaints about widespread problems with access to government information and data (see for example, Wall Street Journal (paywall 😐 ), ZDNet News, Pew Center, Washington Post, Scientific American, TheVerge, and FedScoop to name but a few).

Matthew Green, a professor at Johns Hopkins, said “It’s worrying that every single US cryptography standard is now unavailable to practitioners.” He was responding to the fact that he could not get the documents he needed from the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) or its branch, the Computer Security Resource Center (CSRC). The government shutdown is the direct cause of these problems.

Others who noticed the same problem started chiming in to the discussion Green started, noting that they couldn’t find the standards they needed in Google’s cache or the Wayback machine, either. Someone else suggested that “Such documents should be distributed to multiple free and public repositories” and said that “These documents are “Too important to have subject to a single point of failure.” Someone else said that he downloads personal copies of the documents he needs every month, but had missed one that he uses “somewhat often.” One lone voice wondered about “Federal Depository Libraries, of which I believe there is at least one in every state.” (James responded to that one, letting people know about the FDLP and End of Term crawl!)

There are at least two reasons why users cannot get the documents they need from government servers during the shutdown. In some cases, agencies have apparently shut off access to their documents. (This is the case for both NIST and CSRC.) In other cases, the security certificates of websites have expired — with no agency employees to renew them! — leaving whole websites either insecure or unavailable or both.

Regardless of who you (or your user communities) blame for the shutdown itself, this loss of access was entirely foreseeable and avoidable. It was foreseeable because it has happened before. It was avoidable because libraries can select, acquire, organize, and preserve these documents and provide access to them and services for them whether the government is open or shut-down.

Some libraries probably do have some of these documents. But too many libraries have chosen to adopt a new model of “services without collections.” GPO proudly promotes this model as “All or Mostly Online Federal Depository Libraries.” GPO itself is affected by this model. Almost 20% of the PURLs in CGP point to content on non-GPO government servers. So, even though GPO’s govinfo database and catalog of government publications (CGP) may still be up and running, during the shut-down GPO cannot ensure that all its “Permanent URLs” (PURLs) will work.

This no-collections-model means that libraries are too often choosing simply to point to collections over which they have no control — and we’ve known what happens “When we depend on pointing instead of collecting” for quite some time. When those collections go offline and users lose access, users begin to wonder why someone hasn’t foreseen this problem and put “all those publications somewhere public.”

The gap between what libraries could do to prevent the kind of loss of access the shutdown is causing and what they are doing is particularly notorious in the area of government information. Most federal government information is in the public domain and is available without technical or copyright restrictions or fees. There is nothing preventing libraries from building collections to support users except the will to do so.

Many library administrators are eager to proclaim that pointing to collections they do not control is the new role of libraries in the digital age. Those who promote this new model of services without collections then struggle to demonstrate the value of libraries to their user communities. This is difficult when those communities go directly to collections of information, bypassing libraries and, perhaps, wondering why libraries still exist at all.

This represents a failure by libraries to fulfill their role in society and in the digital information ecosystem.

When the shutdown ends, access will, presumably, be restored. In the wake of the many other problems caused by the shutdown (many of them immediate and even dangerous), this temporary loss of access to some government information may not seem pressing. But librarians should see this as another wake-up call. Hopefully, Depository Library Council’s recent recommendation regarding digital deposit will answer that call. Libraries should not focus on bemoaning the short-term problem. We should, instead, focus on making the next crisis impossible. We can do this by focusing on the long-term problems of digital collection development, preservation and access. The current crisis may be temporary, but when we rely only on the government to provide access to these important resources, access will remain vulnerable to the next crisis or misstep or conscious decision to cut off access. We need to recognize that government agencies do not always have the same priorities as our users.

Today, libraries cannot ensure long-term access to government information because they do not control it. But, if libraries select, acquire, organize, and preserve the government information that is vital to their user communities, then they can ensure long-term access to it. You will not have to persuade your users of the value of your library when you do what they value.

Authors:
James A. Jacobs, University of California San Diego
James R. Jacobs, Stanford University

Could DoD IG Reports be made “private” due to Trump’s off-hand remark?

Steven Aftergood over at Federation of American Scientists’ Secrecy News project writes today that President Trump recently commented off-handedly that reports from the Department of Defense’ Inspector General should be private and not publicly accessible. It’s unclear if this off-the-cuff comment will lead to less public access to these important reports, but Aftergood notes that “secrecy in the Department of Defense has increased noticeably in the Trump Administration” but that the Pentagon still publishes a massive amount of information. What is clear is that this one small comment could have huge implications going forward from “For Official Use Only” markings to restrict access to information to perhaps an erosion of the FOIA process. This is certainly something to keep an eye on.

The recurring dispute over the appropriate degree of secrecy in the Department of Defense arose in a new form last week when President Trump said that certain audits and investigations that are performed by the DoD Inspector General should no longer be made public.

“We’re fighting wars, and they’re doing reports and releasing it to the public? Now, the public means the enemy,” the President said at a January 2 cabinet meeting. “The enemy reads those reports; they study every line of it. Those reports should be private reports. Let him do a report, but they should be private reports and be locked up.”

It is not clear what the President had in mind. Did he have reason to think that US military operations had been damaged by publication of Inspector General reports? Was he now directing the Secretary of Defense to classify such reports, regardless of their specific contents? Was he suggesting the need for a new exemption from the Freedom of Information Act to prevent their disclosure?

Or was this simply an expression of presidential pique with no practical consequence? Thus far, there has been no sign of any change to DoD publication policy in response to the President’s remarks.

via Trump Says DoD IG Reports Should Be “Private” – Federation Of American Scientists.

Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) submits comment to NARA re Dept of Interior records schedule request

The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) just sent me a PDF copy of the comment that they submitted to the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) regarding the Department of Interior records schedule request. This letter, combined with the others from DLF, transparency organizations, and Stanford Libraries offers a finely grained analysis of the overall problem and suggestions for moving forward in making the scheduling process much more transparent and in understanding and preserving important government records. Many thanks to these organizations and the many others who submitted comments.

The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) is a non-profit organization dedicated to safeguarding the earth: its people, its plants and animals, and the natural systems on which all life depends. On behalf of our over 3 million members and online activists, NRDC submits the following comments regarding the Department of the Interior’s proposed updates to its records schedule, DAA-0048-2015-0003. See Notice of availability of proposed records schedules, 83 Fed. Reg. 45,979, 45,980 (Sept. 11, 2018). NRDC also joins the letter submitted by the Emmett Environmental Law and Policy Clinic at Harvard Law School. We appreciate the willingness of the National Archives and Records Administration to work with interested parties and extend the comment period to permit public inspection of Interior’s retention policy for such vital records.

The proposed schedule covers records that are central to the public’s understanding of the Department of the Interior’s (“Interior’s”) stewardship of our nation’s public lands and natural resources. Moreover, it encompasses records of activities that might have long-lasting or permanent implications for both human health and the environment. But the proposed schedule permits some records to be destroyed while they may still be substantially valuable to the public, while other retention policies are too vague to assess their impact. Moreover, the high publicity and comprehensive nature of Interior’s schedule change highlights shortcomings in NARA’s approval process for agency records schedules. Interior’s records schedule should be amended to ensure that valuable records are preserved for public inspection.

Digital Library Federation and government transparency community submit comments to NARA re DoI records schedule

[UPDATE: 11/27/2018: Attached are PDF copies of the letters from Openness and Accountability Community and Digital Library Federation (DLF).]

Today was the last day to comment on the draft Department of Interior records scheduling request (originally posted here on FGI “Holes in History: The Dept of Interior request to destroy records.”). I’m aware that 2 groups — the Digital Library Federation’s Government Records Transparency and Accountability working group (GRTA) and a broad coalition of government transparency organizations including Government Information Watch, FGI, Defending Rights & Dissent, Demand Progress, Public Citizen, FracTracker Alliance, National Coalition for History, Association of Research Libraries, Rural Coalition, Society of Professional Journalists, Project On Government Oversight (POGO), and ICPSR — have submitted comments and listed concerns and ideas for how to make the records scheduling process more transparent. I think these letters, combined with Stanford UL’s letter to AOTUS Ferriero, raise important points and issues in the records scheduling process in general and in the Department of Interior’s request specifically and give suggestions for how to make the process more transparent and publicly accessible.

NARA does yeoman’s work and is critical to the public understanding of the workings of our government. Hopefully, these and other comments received by concerned citizens and organizations will improve access and preservation of important records.

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