How federal agencies are quietly removing government Web resources, and why it matters

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As part of our reporting on changes to public access to public information, we took a look at three significant reductions in access to Web resources across three agencies during the Trump administration.

For each change, we first describe what happened and code it using our classification of Web content alterations and changes in access to Web resources, which details the ways in which websites can be changed.

We then provide additional context by referencing corresponding reporting by the news media or civil society groups, describing the agency’s communication about the change, and elaborating on the broader significance of the change.

Since the start of the Trump administration, access to resources on environmental federal websites has been substantially reduced, undermining the public’s understanding of government regulations and the regulatory process itself.

The way an agency implements a change can also cause confusion. In one case, changes to a government search engine, which were not proactively explained, spurred public and media confusion.

Federal websites change all the time, but the most significant classes of changes should be clearly documented so the public understands how access to information is being altered. In this post, we document:

  1. Removal of a Report about Corporate Income Tax from the Department of the Treasury’s Office of Tax Analysis Website
  2. Removal of Web Records from the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Inspector General FOIA Reading Room Page
  3. Removal of the Department of Energy’s Online Phonebook

 


1) Removal of a Report about Corporate Income Tax from the Department of the Treasury’s Office of Tax Analysis Website

URL: https://www.treasury.gov/resource-center/tax-policy/Pages/otapaper_tech.aspx – Change occurred between July 6, 2017 and September 29, 2017

Description of change: A 2012 paper on corporate taxes, “Distributing the Corporate Income Tax: Revised U.S. Treasury Methodology,” was removed from the Treasury Department’s Office of Tax Analysis (OTA) website. A link and reference to the report was removed from the OTA Technical Papers page. The report was previously available at the URL https://www.treasury.gov/resource-center/tax-policy/tax-analysis/Documents/TP-5.pdf; a May 22, 2017 preserved record of the report can now be found on the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine.

Classification of change:

  • Non-maintenance:
    • [5a] Removing​ ​an​ ​entire​ ​webpage​ ​or​ ​document > The​ ​previous​ ​URL​ ​leads​ ​to​ ​a​ ​“dead”​ ​page​ ​or​ ​a​ ​404​ ​error
    • [1a] Altering​ ​or​ ​removing​ ​text​ ​and​ ​non-text​ ​content > Change​ ​or​ ​removal​ ​of​ ​text​ ​snippets​ ​(word(s),​ ​sentence(s),​ ​title(s),​ ​link​ ​text)
  • Maintenance:
    • [3a] ​Updating​ ​or​ ​adding​ ​links > Removing a link to a page that has been permanently removed
  • Agency Communication:
    • [2] Agency responded to or notified the public after the change.

Reporting: This change was first reported by the Wall Street Journal: Treasury Removes Paper at Odds With Mnuchin’s Take on Corporate-Tax Cut’s Winners

Communication by agency: Following the report removal, a Treasury spokeswoman told the Wall Street Journal: “The paper was a dated staff analysis from the previous administration. It does not represent our current thinking and analysis.”

Significance: The removed report is a 2012 economic analysis that, according to Wall Street Journal’s reporting, is at odds with policies proposed by Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin. Jason Furman, Chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers under President Obama, tweeted that in more than 40 years of working and technical papers about taxes published by the Treasury Department, this is the first instance of a removed report, and, moreover, that this report is a non-political, research document. The removal substantially reduces the ability for the report to be used or cited in further policy analyses or historical studies. Whether or not the analysis is outdated, as claimed by an agency spokesperson, the Treasury Department did not proactively communicate or sufficiently justify the report’s removal.


2) Removal of Web Records from the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Inspector General FOIA Reading Room Page

URL: https://www.oig.dhs.gov/foia/reading-room – Change occurred between July 13, 2017 and November 10, 2017 

Description of change: Two documents were removed from a Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Office of Inspector General webpage, which lists frequently requested Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) records. The removed records detailed hundreds of misconduct allegations involving DHS employees. One of the records is still available on the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine from June 27, 2017. Another new FOIA record was posted on October 10, 2017.

Classification of change:

  • Non-maintenance:
    • [5a] Removing​ ​an​ ​entire​ ​webpage​ ​or​ ​document > The​ ​previous​ ​URL​ ​leads​ ​to​ ​a​ ​“dead”​ ​page​ ​or​ ​a​ ​404​ ​error
    • [1a] Altering​ ​or​ ​removing​ ​text​ ​and​ ​non-text​ ​content > Change​ ​or​ ​removal​ ​of​ ​text​ ​snippets​ ​(word(s),​ ​sentence(s),​ ​title(s),​ ​link​ ​text)
  • Maintenance:
    • [3a] ​Updating​ ​or​ ​adding​ ​links > Removing a link to a page that has been permanently removed
  • Agency Communication:
    • [2] Agency responded to or notified the public after the change.

Reporting: This change was first reported by the Project on Government Oversight: Homeland Security’s Top Watchdog Pulled Documents from its Website

Communication by agency: Following the change, a DHS spokesperson told the Project On Government Oversight that the agency removed the Web records “after it learned that one of the documents included a name that should have been redacted under FOIA regulations.”

Significance: While DHS, like other agencies, has discretion under the FOIA to both review and revise responsive records disclosed online that could result in harms to the privacy of individuals or the security of personnel or programs, they should clearly and proactively communicate the reason for any change and provide a timeline for when they will return the records to public access. Moreover, agencies should realize that online public disclosure, especially for sensitive material, should be done carefully and with the understanding that Web records may be preserved indefinitely by third parties, as was done in this case by the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine for one of the removed FOIA records.


3) Removal of the Department of Energy’s Online Phonebook

URL: https://energy.gov/doe-phonebook – Change occurred between February 14, 2017 and February 24, 2017

Description of change: The Department of Energy (DOE) removed its phonebook, which provided access to DOE employee contact information. The information made available by the search engine is not available elsewhere online.

Classification of change:

  • Non-maintenance:
    • [7d] Altering​ ​or​ ​removing​ ​search​ ​engines​ ​and​ ​open​ ​data​ ​platforms >  Removing​ ​a​ ​search​ ​engines​ ​or​ ​open​ ​data​ ​platform​ ​that​ ​provides​ ​access​ ​to documents,​ ​datasets,​ ​or​ ​information​ ​that​ ​are​ ​only​ ​accessible​ ​there
    • [1a] Altering​ ​or​ ​removing​ ​text​ ​and​ ​non-text​ ​content > Change​ ​or​ ​removal​ ​of​ ​text​ ​snippets​ ​(word(s),​ ​sentence(s),​ ​title(s),​ ​link​ ​text)
  • Agency Communication:
    • [2] Agency responded to or notified the public after the change.

Reporting: E&E News first reported on the search engine removal: Employee phone directory vanishes from website

Communication by agency: After the removal, the DOE’s Office of Public Affairs issued a statement that it “had received complaints from the workforce regarding the release of their direct contact information and the disruption to their operations as a result of outside personnel reaching out directly [rather than] working through the appropriate channels.”

Significance: The removal of the phonebook was done without notice or explanation and has entirely removed the vast majority of DOE employee contact information from public view. This removal significantly diminishes the public’s ability to know who is employed at the DOE and how to contact DOE employees through email and phone. In contrast, the Environmental Protection Agency still maintains a searchable Web staff directory, as do many other government agencies.

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  • us0r

    GSA removed addresses from its published contracting office list.