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Congress Hurries to Limit Public's Right to Know


Source: http://www.cdt.org/publications/

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C D T   P O L I C Y   P O S T
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A BRIEFING ON PUBLIC POLICY ISSUES
AFFECTING CIVIL LIBERTIES ONLINE
from
THE CENTER FOR DEMOCRACY AND TECHNOLOGY
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Volume 5, Number 9       May 20, 1999
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CONTENTS:
(1) Congress Hurries to Limit Public's Right to Know
(2) Background on Proposals To Limit Public Clean Air Act Information
(3) CDT Creates Access to Government Information Resource
(4) Subscription Information
(5) About the Center for Democracy and Technology

** This document may be redistributed freely with this banner intact **
Excerpts may be re-posted with permission of ari@cdt.org
_______________________________________________________________________

(1) CONGRESS HURRIES TO LIMIT PUBLIC'S RIGHT TO KNOW

The House Commerce Subcommittee on Health and Environment held a hearing 
yesterday on H.R. 1790, a bill that would impose criminal penalties of up 
to a year in jail on government officials who make certain environmental 
data
available to the public in electronic format, even though the information 
must be made available on paper.

The proposal, introduced by Commerce Committee chairman Thomas J. Bliley, 
Jr. (R-VA) but crafted by the Clinton Administration, is supposed to 
prevent terrorists from learning through the Internet about the damage to 
surrounding communities that could be caused by attacking a hazardous 
chemical plant.

CDT is concerned that the legislation would set an unwise precedent by 
limiting the release of government information in electronic form, 
backtracking from advances of the last three years that required disclosure 
of government information in the format requested by a citizen.

CDT and other advocates of access to government information wrote to 
Chairman Bliley urging him not to undermine the goals of the Electronic 
Freedom of Information Act (E-FOIA). http://www.cdt.org/righttoknow/
blileyletter.html, However, yesterday's hearing included no testimony from 
advocates for open government or from experts on federal and state FOIA and 
open records laws. Democratic members of the committee took the unusual 
step of calling for a second hearing which will take place next Wednesday, 
May 26.

Supporters of the bill made it clear that they would like to see the bill 
enacted into law before June 21.

_______________________________________________________________________

(2) BACKGROUND ON PROPOSALS TO LIMIT PUBLIC CLEAN AIR ACT INFORMATION

H.R. 1790 and its Senate counterpart S.880 would amend a section of the 
Clean Air Act that was designed to make available to the public so-called 
"worst case scenarios" about potential accidents at chemical plants.  The
worst case scenarios describe how far the dangerous chemicals in a plant 
would travel in event of a catastrophe, how many people live in the circle 
defined by that distance, and what types of public facilities (e.g., 
schools or hospitals) are within that radius. The compilation and public 
release of this data were designed to empower local communities by 
providing the information they need to assess the safety of plants 
operating in their midst.  The data allow concerned citizens to compare the 
risks to their communities with those affecting other neighborhoods.  The 
worst case data do not include information on where the chemicals are 
stored, what would cause a release or what site security measures a 
facility has in place.

Chemical plants are supposed to submit their worst case data to the 
Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) by June 21, 1999.  In recent months, 
chemical manufacturers and the FBI have said that release of the data 
increases the potential for a terrorist attack.  What specifically worried 
the FBI was the notion that the information would be posted on the 
Internet.  Yet no terrorist attack has ever taken place on a chemical 
plant, while hundreds of people (including employees) die every year from 
chemical plant accidents.

The proposed legislation would allow disclosure of worst case data to the 
public only on paper.  Under the proposal, the data might be made available 
at some public libraries in electronic form, but librarians would have to 
monitor patrons to assure that they were not copying the data. Any official 
that made the information available through any other means would be liable 
for criminal penalties of up to a year in jail.  Supporters of the bill 
argue that this complicated system would make the information available but 
create "speed bumps" so that the data would not be posted on the Internet.

Representative Henry Waxman (D-CA) has drafted a bill that take a much more 
direct approach: Instead of restricting citizens' ability to find out about 
hazards in their backyard, Waxman's bill would require greater protections 
against terrorist attacks at hazardous chemical sites, including buffer 
zones between hazardous chemical operations and residential areas.

For more information on the public release of worst case scenario 
information, see the FAQ at http://www.rtk.net/wcs.

_______________________________________________________________________

(3) CDT CREATES ACCESS TO GOVERNMENT INFORMATION RESOURCE

Since issues of access to government information have become increasingly 
important to the Internet community, CDT has built a page for news and 
related links on the subject - http://www.cdt.org/righttoknow/.

The page contains the latest headlines and links to FOIA aids and will soon 
contain links to sites making government information available in 
innovative ways.  In the coming months, we hope to expand the site to 
include an automatic FOIA request system, allowing you to formulate your 
FOIA requests and submit them directly to government agencies online.

If you have suggestions or comments about what CDT could do to improve 
citizen access to information through the Internet, send them to 
ari@cdt.org.


_______________________________________________________________________

(4) SUBSCRIPTION INFORMATION

Be sure you are up to date on the latest public policy issues affecting civil
liberties online and how they will affect you! Subscribe to the CDT Policy
Post news distribution list.  CDT Policy Posts, the regular news publication
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source for information about critical free speech and privacy issues
affecting the Internet and other interactive communications media.

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In the BODY of the message (leave the SUBJECT LINE BLANK), type

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_______________________________________________________________________

(5) ABOUT THE CENTER FOR DEMOCRACY AND TECHNOLOGY/CONTACTING US

The Center for Democracy and Technology is a non-profit public interest
organization based in Washington, DC. The Center's mission is to develop
and advocate public policies that advance democratic values and
constitutional civil liberties in new computer and communications
technologies.

Contacting us:

General information:  info@cdt.org
World Wide Web:       http://www.cdt.org/


Snail Mail:  The Center for Democracy and Technology
             1634 Eye Street NW * Suite 1100 * Washington, DC 20006
             (v) +1.202.637.9800 * (f) +1.202.637.0968


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