Cyberspace gears for next series of online challenges
Sourse: The Hill
Date: June 04, 2003
BPA International, which does media audits, reports that this newspaper serves “the U.S. Senate, U.S. House of Representatives, the White House, Executive Branch, Supreme Court, media outlets, paid subscribers, passengers of US Air and Delta shuttles, Amtrak and other non-paid recipients.”
That’s quite accurate — so far as it goes.
We limit our press run for each of our two weekly issues to some 22,500 copies, which are distributed to a targeted readership. But since we also put each issue online on our open website (www.thehill.com), our theoretical readership runs into the millions. That means The Hill is also available to readers in Manhattan, Montana, Mongolia or, for that matter, anywhere on the planet, as long as they have Internet access. In fact, a reader in Zaporozhye, Ukraine, has commented by e-mail on our May 28 article on the cyberterrorism threat.
Our website presence matters even to the 45 or so percent of U.S. households still removed from cyberspace^; conductivity has spread like a silent fog to virtually every school and public library in America. We’ve become an online nation.
Yet there are problems.
The Internet, it’s been said, is like the best library ever built — except that all the books lie in a heap on the floor. In searching for information about, say, how to search for information, those words might prove useful. But how can you be sure you’ll find them?
The credibility of what you’re reading in this space rests on the reputation of The Hill and on my byline. You could be reassured — or not — by consulting a reference work such as, say, Who’s Who in America.
But how can you know whether an imposter, employing digital sleight-of-hand, hasn’t passed himself off as this columnist?
Such problems can’t readily be overcome without altering the open quality of the Internet. That wasn’t seen as a design flaw by the programmers who crafted the network in ways that would allow them to freely share data while barring would-be evildoers from wrecking the entire edifice.
When it comes to government, the need to foster kinder and gentler searches and to deter malicious spoofs becomes even more acute.
Nowadays, Congress alone produces upwards of 350,000 documents annually. About 80 percent are (in a fashion) accessible online and the rest will be in a few years’ time, if current plans go forward.
Bruce James, the innovative new head of the Government Printing Office (GPO), concludes that it would be easier for people to know what’s going on at Capitol Hill if a special version of Google, the user-friendly search engine, could scan the plethora of congressional materials.
But some staffers and librarians contend access through a Google-like interface isn’t conducive to serious data-mining. In any event, it should be possible to craft a dual-track search system.
As matters stand, even savvy reporters regularly encounter digital roadblocks and detours in attempting to surf congressional and other governmental portals through the World Wide Web. It’s hardly likely that I’m the only person who has been aggravated and disappointed while trying to probe federal databases, seeking nuggets that ought to be there.
Such frustrations have helped spawn private services that, for a fee, help you cope with government data. Improved taxpayer-funded search engines that scan taxpayer-funded data could curtail the need for such commercial outlets.
In the future, a visionary GPO wouldn’t compete directly with parallel private services — just as, in the past, a visionary U.S. Postal Service would have left scant room for private express-delivery outlets. Such federal “data crutches” may have to offer more in-depth analysis, relevant tie-ins with private data and other useful add-ons.
That leaves the question of authenticity. It’s essentially the same one that’s raised by legal professionals when they cite a need to safeguard the “chain of evidence” between a crime scene and the courtroom.
Some of the best minds of the information age are striving to solve these problems.
One of them is MIT’s Tim Berners-Lee, who invented the World Wide Web in 1990. (He’s also seeking to make the Internet an even more robust tool, which would serve government too.)
Although people can differ on whether shedding more light on political mysteries will also improve our political life, it’s clear that more and better online access is on tap for us all.
Original article: http://www.thehill.com/glass/060303.aspx
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