No URL Left Behind? Web Scrub Raises Concerns

By Michelle R. Davis — September 18, 2002 7 min read
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The Department of Education is in the process of a massive overhaul of its Web site to make it easier to use and to remove outdated data—and ensure that material on the site meshes with the Bush administration’s political philosophy.

The department will strip its ed.gov site of thousands of files, many of them old and inaccessible from the site’s home page. Sometime this fall, the new Web site will be unveiled, with special sections for teachers and researchers, parents and policy wonks.

But some researchers and government watchdogs say the department’s decision to scrap some information based on whether it comports with Bush administration initiatives could set an unsettling precedent. The redesign thus highlights yet another question emerging from new technology: Just what responsibility do political officials have to preserve the products of those who came before, particularly if their predecessors saw the issues in a different light?

During the previous change of White House administrations, when President Clinton took office in 1993, the department’s Web site did not even exist. Back then, outdated agency papers or studies from past administrations might simply have been stored in a dusty, backroom filing cabinet.

“This is somewhat new and uncharted territory,” said John P. Bailey, the department’s director of education technology, who is overseeing the current project. “Our goal is to make as much information as possible current and relevant, while keeping that historical data and perspective.’

Since March 1994, when ed.gov was publicly launched, the site has grown to include more than 50,000 files and gets on average 84,000 visits a day, said Keith M. Stubbs, the Internet project manager in the department’s office of the chief information officer. This will be the fourth major redesign since the site’s debut.

A housecleaning is overdue, said Mr. Bailey, a Bush appointee. A directive that went to senior staff members and the Web site office at the end of May mapped out just how that sweep would take place. Some of the problems with the site, according to the memo, include difficulties with navigation, mediocre graphics, and information that is either outdated or “does not reflect the priorities, philosophies, or goals of the present administration.”

Each assistant secretary received a list of files slated for the chopping block. According to the May 31 directive, everything on the site dated before February 2001, just after President Bush took office, will be removed unless it is needed for legal reasons or it supports the “No Child Left Behind Act” of 2001— the president’s key education measure—or other administration initiatives. Some information can remain if it’s important for historical perspective or a policy reason. Staff can argue to keep older files, but an assistant secretary must approve the decision, the memo says.

Each assistant secretary has formed a group that includes at least one person who “understands the policy and priorities of the administration” to review Web content. An eight- person “content-review board” of administration hires chosen from areas throughout the department will approve the final list.

Mr. Bailey stressed last week that decisions about what to take off the Web site and what to leave on were not yet final.

Many in the education field say easy access to information, especially on past initiatives, is important so research isn’t duplicated and new efforts can build on what’s been done.

“There’s definitely a real concern out there that they may be using this housecleaning to get rid of reports that for historical reference should still be provided,” said Richard Hershman, the vice president for legislative affairs for the National Education Knowledge Industry Association, a Washington-based trade organization for research labs and centers.

Linda G. Roberts was the senior adviser on technology for the department during the Clinton administration. She said it is important for the current administration to emphasize its new efforts and policies. But she said the limitless space on the Internet allows both old and new information to co-exist.

“It’s important to understand that there isn’t a storage capacity problem on the Web site,” Ms. Roberts said.

Deleting ‘Orphans’

Mr. Bailey said much of what will be removed from the Web site is outdated, such as a 1999 calendar of activities to do with children. The site’s setup has also created 13,000 “orphan” files, slated for removal, in which information remains in cyberspace but is no longer linked to the site. Without knowing each file’s URL—its web address—the data might as well be locked in a cabinet.

Mr. Bailey said that the selection process for more significant files is “careful and methodical.” The content-review board, however, will have the final say.

“We’re not trying to undercut previous administrations,” Mr. Bailey said. “There’s a lot of stuff done by the previous administration that will stay up.”

The Education Department is considering loading all the information removed from the site onto a CD-ROM and making it available to the public, possibly through the National Library of Education.

Digital Digests

The popular digests put out by the Educational Resources Information Center make up one big chunk of data that may soon disappear from ed.gov. ERIC, the 30-year-old data-collection center of the education world, produces about 160 digests a year from its 16 informational clearinghouses. The four-page briefing papers on “hot topics” address everything from class size to bilingual education.

“I understand the ERIC digests are scheduled to be pulled,” said Lawrence M. Rudner, the director of the ERIC Clearinghouse on Assessment and Evaluation. “The digests are extremely popular and a very important product of the system.”

After ed.gov’s home page and images, the ERIC digests are the third most popular item for visitors there, Mr. Rudner said. Though the federal government manages ERIC, it contracts with outside groups for data collection.

If pulled from ed.gov, the digests will still be available on ERIC’s own Web site, Mr. Rudner said. But many teachers and parents aren’t familiar with the site and find the digests instead on ed.gov.

For Kate Corby, the education and psychology reference librarian at the Michigan State University Libraries, the idea that the Education Department would make it harder to access ERIC digests is “some crazy political gamesmanship.” She said the digests are used frequently by students, teachers, and parents.

The digests are “summaries of research. They’re not written by politicians,” she said. “You’d be hard pressed to say they had a political point of view.”

Though Mr. Bailey said no final decision had been made on the digests, clearinghouse directors have already been apprised of the change.

Politics clearly has played a role in Web site content—now and under the Clinton administration. A study looking at E-rate usage in empowerment zones done by Duncan D. Chaplin, a senior research methodologist at the Urban Institute, was pushed through the department’s approval process in the last days of the Clinton term and posted to the Web site. “It was a rush job to get it out before the political administration changed,” Mr. Chaplin said.

The report was quickly removed from the Internet. But even after the Bush administration did in fact approve it, agency officials refused to post it on the ed.gov site, Mr. Chaplin said. The study found that schools in empowerment zones were more likely to tap into the E-rate program, which gives schools discounts on Internet access. President Bush favors tax credits instead of empowerment-zone grants, and the E-rate program has been called the “Gore tax” by some Republicans after former Vice President Al Gore, who championed the plan.

Mr. Chaplin said the Bush administration, for which he continues to do studies, allowed him to publicize the report on the Urban Institute’s Web site.

There are few laws governing government Web sites and what they must archive. The National Archives and Records Administration issued guidance on managing Web records in April, saying agency Web pages “meet the definition of a federal record and therefore must be managed as such.” The guidance suggests taking snapshots of Web sites and archiving the information.

But Gary Brass, the executive director of OMB Watch, a Washington-based group working to strengthen public access to government data, said most agencies ignore that advice.

“This is a gap in public policy,” he said. “The Clinton and Bush administrations have given scant attention to these issues.”

Gary J. Marchionini, a professor in the school of information and library science at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, said new technology presents a range of novel issues for governments. With public access to so much information on the Web, it’s important to examine how political changes can affect that access, he said.

“It’s too soon for regulations on this, but not too soon for guidelines and a discussion,” Mr. Marchionini said.

Gary Ruskin, the director of the Congressional Accountability Project, based in Portland, Ore., said governments should not view their Web sites as “propaganda vehicles,” and should preserve the historical record. The group is pushing Congress to make more data available electronically.

“The Bush administration should not be constrained from explaining what it believes in,” Mr. Ruskin said, but determining access through a political lens “would make George Orwell smile.”

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