Brown University News Bureau

The Brown University Op-Ed Service
Tracie Sweeney, Editor
Distributed October 1998
Copyright ©1998 by Daniel O'Mahony

Will future readers have electronic access to the Starr report?

By Daniel O'Mahony
Daniel P. O'Mahony is government documents coordinator at the Brown University Library.
"What happens when the feeding frenzy over the salacious details contained in the [Starr] report dies down? When the media (someday) move on to the next big story, will CNN, the New York Times and other news outlets continue to post the 445- page report on their websites?"

The recent public release of the Starr report over the Internet gave us more than simply a look inside a deeply flawed presidency or a special prosecutor's overzealous investigation (depending on your point of view). It also gave many of us the first real glimpse at the future of government information access in the electronic age. Many Americans were troubled by what they read in the report. But the means by which the report was disseminated and the implications for the future should alarm all of us.

In an extraordinary display of the wonders of modern information technologies, millions of people were able to access the full text of the Starr report within minutes of its public release. Whether from official government websites (like LC Thomas, GPO Access, or the House of Representatives, to name a few) or from the numerous nongovernment sites that posted the report to facilitate wider access, more people had quicker access to a single government document than perhaps ever before. Individuals may agree or disagree with the decision to release the report in the first place, but nearly everyone could appreciate the speed and utility of the Internet in getting government information directly to the people.

At least for the moment.

But what happens when the feeding frenzy over the salacious details contained in the report dies down? When the media (someday) move on to the next big story, will CNN, the New York Times and other news outlets continue to post the 445- page report on their websites? And if the Democrats (somehow) were to regain the majority in the House this November, could we still expect to find the Starr report on the House of Representatives' Web site? What guarantees do we - as citizens of the new electronic democracy and consumers of government information - have that this report or any other electronic document will be available in two months, two years, twenty years, or more?

All the recent talk of impeachment has renewed media and public interest in the Watergate investigations of the 1970s and the impeachment trial of Andrew Johnson in the 1860s. Anyone wishing to satisfy his or her curiosity about these episodes in our history can walk into any one of hundreds of libraries across the country and pull off the shelf the official reports and documents regarding these cases. Moreover, this material has been readily and continuously available since its initial release - be it 30 or 130 years ago - for any member of the public to read, and it will continue to be available indefinitely.

We can't say the same about the Starr report or any other electronic government document today. In the past, access to public reports did not depend on Internet access or whether a particular Web site might still be in operation in the future, or which political party might control Congress at any given time. Throughout the government, countless publications are released every week in a dizzying array of electronic media and file formats. But none of them - issued over the Internet, or on floppy diskettes, magnetic tapes, CD-ROMs, optical discs, or other electronic storage media - are archivally sound. And to further complicate matters, computer operating systems, software and file formats are constantly in flux rendering older files obsolete or incompatible.

The instant worldwide dissemination of the Starr report clearly demonstrated that electronic information technologies have enormous power and potential to expand public access to government information. But unless steps are taken now - today - to capture, preserve and make electronic documents continuously and permanently available to the public, then one of the greatest ironies of the "information age" may be that there won't be much information around for future generations. Government agencies daily add and delete electronic files and reports from their Web sites, often believing they need only to make the most recent information available. No one is comprehensively retaining the old information before making way for the new. As the federal government races along with the rest of society to take greater advantage of electronic information technologies, no one is responsible for ensuring that the information produced today will be available in the future.

A bill before the Senate Committee on Rules and Administration would go a long way toward solving this problem. The Government Publications Reform Act of 1998 (S. 2288) is a bipartisan effort to reform the printing and dissemination laws of the United States - laws which have remained virtually unchanged for 103 years. The bill, introduced by Sen. John Warner (R-Va.) and Sen. Wendell Ford (D-Ky.) and co-sponsored by Sen. Jack Reed (D-RI), is the product of over 20 years of study and discussions and more than 20 months of negotiations with stakeholders. A key purpose of the bill is to establish a system to ensure permanent public access to electronic government publications. The bill envisions a cooperative system that utilizes the combined efforts of publishing agencies, the Government Printing Office, the National Archives, the Library of Congress, and other national, state, and local libraries. Such a system would fulfill the nation's fundamental responsibility to inform current and future generations of citizens about the actions, deliberations, and decisions of their government.

Many Americans, wearied and disgusted by both the Clinton-Lewinsky matter and the media coverage of it, have wished that the Starr report would just "go away." Without much-needed reforms to the law to enable the federal government to handle electronic information and preserve it for the future, the public may indeed get what they asked for. The Starr report and all electronic government documents today are in constant danger of "going away" and being lost to electronic obsolescence and inexcusable shortsightedness. This likely is not what the public had in mind.

[For more information about S. 2288, the Government Publications Reform Act of 1998, see the Senate Committee on Rules and Administration Web site or the Inter-Association Working Group on Government Information Policy website.]