Agency Initiatives Against Open Government

American Chemical Society calling on Congress to shut down the NIH's PubChem

The American Chemical Society is calling on Congress to shut down the NIH's PubChem, a freely accessible database on small organic molecules. PubChem is an important component of NIH's Molecular Libraries Initiative, which is a key element of the NIH "road map" for medical research.

ACS lobbying efforts have focused on the Ohio Congressional delegation -- their Chemical Abstracts Service employs 1200+ people in Columbus -- and the Appropriations subcommittees concerned with NIH.

ACS claims that PubChem competes with Chemical Abstracts Service (CAS). In reality, PubChem and the Chemical Abstracts Service databases are complementary, not duplicative.

What is PubChem?
In 2004, as part of the NIH’s Roadmap Initiative to speed new medical treatments and improved health care to all Americans, NIH launched an on-line database called PubChem as part of a suite of databases supporting the New Pathways to Discovery component of the roadmap effort. New Pathways focuses on very basic biomedical research, and especially focuses on understanding the molecular biology of health and illnesses. Bioinformatics is a critical component of that effort.

  • PubChem is a free, publicly available database created by NIH in 2004 to provide information about small molecules for use as research tools and as potential starting points that may lead to the development of new medications. The database connects chemical information with biomedical research and clinical information in a connect-the-dots fashion, organizing facts in numerous public databases into a unified whole.
  • PubChem is a critical part of the Molecular Libraries initiative of the NIH Roadmap for Medical Research. It will combine new data generated by this initiative with data available from other public sources to create a powerful new research tool.
  • PubChem is the latest member of the powerful family of integrated databases operated by the National Library of Medicine, including GenBank, PubMed, GEO, OMIM, and a host of other resources that are utilized millions of times a day by scientists all over the world. The integration of these databases makes the whole much greater than the sum of its parts.

Drawing from many public sources, PubChem organizes information about the biological activities of chemical compounds into a comprehensive biomedical database. All of this supports the part of the Roadmap called the Molecular Libraries initiative. PubChem is the informatics backbone for virtually all of these components, and is intended to empower the scientific community to use small molecule chemical compounds in their research.

What is the issue?
A bedrock NIH principle is that medical research information developed with public funds must be made freely and publicly available for the good of advancing medical research to cure disease.

The American Chemical Society (ACS) has expressed concern that PubChem is a threat to the financial survival of the Chemical Abstracts Service (CAS). PubChem provides free access to its database; CAS charges a fee for researchers to use its database. ACS has demanded that NIH shut down PubChem or substantially alter it so as not to compete with CAS.

  1. ACS/CAS claims that a federally supported database that is freely available to all users and is supported by federal tax dollars has an unfair advantage over the CAS service, which charges a fee for access to its database.
  2. ACS claims that PubChem will cripple CAS, sapping both it and the ACS’s economic foundation, resulting in the loss of jobs in Columbus, Ohio.
  3. ACS/CAS appears to want NIH to either shut down the PubChem database or severely limit its content so that it does not overlap with ACS/CAS in any way.
  4. ACS/CAS also appears to want to provide some of the information contained in PubChem, but at a cost to researchers who would use this information.

This is much the same argument that the information industry made with regard to PubScience - which they managed to get shut down.

NIH staff analysis shows that PubChem and CAS overlap relatively little in terms of content. PubChem and CAS differ widely in scope and resources.

  • Budget: CAS budget is reported to be $260 million; PubChem budget is $3 million.
  • Staffing: CAS staff is reported to be 1,300; PubChem staff is 13.
  • Chemicals: CAS has information on 25 million unique chemicals; PubChem has information on 850,000 unique chemicals (though this number is expected to grow).
  • Purpose: CAS provides chemical, commercial and patent information to chemists; PubChem integrates medical information for medical researchers.
  • PubChem and CAS content are complementary resources tailored to the needs of different segments of the scientific community.

24 May
ALA, its sister library associations, and others wrote to Rep. Ralph Regula (D-OH) expressing our enthusiastic support for continuation of PubChem, and rejecting the ACS contention that PubChem will compete with the giant CAS. The letter notes that "not only is it implausible that NIH’s modestly funded program would be a substitute for the wide range of resources integrated by CAS, but there appears to be remarkably little overlap in either content or likely users of PubChem and CAS."

Copy of the letter ( PDF)

back to top


National Geospatial Intelligence Agency to Restrict Products Currently Publicly Available

Nov 29, 2005
The National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA) announced that it will go forward with its previously announced proposal to remove its Flight Information Publications (FLIP) and Digital Aeronautical Flight Information File (DAFIFTM) from public access.

NGA stated that it is taking this action due to the increased numbers of international source providers claiming intellectual property rights of their data. According to NGA, many of these sources "forewarned NGA they intended to copyright their aeronautical data. NGA’s public release of data produced by others violated claimed copyright, forcing NGA to discontinue the release of this data to the general public." The announcement states that "government agencies and authorized government contractors are not affected by this action."

NGA, in consultation with the Federal Aviation Administration, has determined this action will not affect chart products for US airspace or Caribbean and South American charts and also Pacific, Australia, and Antarctica charts in areas considered part of the US Flight Information Region. NGA has decided not to withdraw paper map products to a scale of 1:250,000 to 1:5,000,000. These products will continue to be available to the public.

As a result of input from the public comment period, NGA will phase in the removal of the affected NGA products from public access over a 22 month period. The first phase of the product withdrawal begins in January 2006 with the removal of worldwide DAFIF™ from public sale. The electronic distribution of DAFIF™ over the World Wide Web (www) and public sale of NGA FLIP outside US airspace will cease in October 2006. The remaining NGA FLIP will be removed from public access in October 2007.

back to top


Dec 2, 2004
The National Geospatial Intelligence Agency (NGA) announced in mid-November that they plan to to remove from public access all of NGA's aeronautical products/publications in both hardcopy and digital format. The removals will include their print and electronic maps. There is a 60-day window during which they will consider responses to their plans. The ALA is beginning efforts to coordinate a response.

According to the official who issued the announcement, plans are already underway in NGA's Maritime Division for withdrawal of NGA's nautical charts, including all paper and digital variants.

The reasons given by NGA for the withdrawal of the aeronautical products are:

  1. NGA's commercial/copyright concerns as a consequence of co-production agreements with foreign semi-private companies and others who co-produce the charts with NGA;
  2. data integrity; and
  3. terrorist/unfriendly use of NGA products.

The proposed withdrawal of nautical charts is reportedly being driven by the dynamics of US-UK and US-Canadian co-production issues.

We have been given to understand that, even if a solution could be found to the commerical/copyright issue which respected NGA's needs for foreign input but also allowed public access, NGA would nevertheless still insist on total withdrawal for data integrity and terrorist reasons.

The Federal Register notice is located  here.

Background information on the NGA initiative can be found  here and  here.

back to top


DHS and National Environmental Policy Act disclosure

August 16, 04
ALA filed comments on a DHS proposed management directive for 'compliance' with the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). The portion of the directive on disclosure of information is very expansive -- in its restrictions -- and appears to attempt to accomplish by directive what DHS has not been allowed to do by statute. We urge DHS to revise the Directive to comply with the law by limiting its nondisclosure provisions to information that unambiguously qualifies for withholding under one of the exemptions provided in the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).

Letter (PDF)

back to top


MISSING: Information About Women’s Lives
16 June 2004

MISSING: Information About Women's Lives, a 24-page report from the National Council for Research on Women, documents how crucial data on women and girls is disappearing. MISSING concentrates on vital data that has been deleted, buried, altered, or has otherwise gone missing from government websites and publications. As the report shows, such distortions and omissions have debilitating consequences for peoples’ health and livelihoods. They also deny researchers critical facts and impede our ability to craft solutions and develop strategies to address the pressing challenges of our times.

MISSING concentrates on four key areas that affect women and girls where priorities have changed, funding has been cut, research findings distorted, important social differences masked, and critical committees and programs dismantled. The report makes clear the following has gone MISSING:

  • Accurate and Science-Based Information on Women’s Health
  • Accurate and Reliable Information on Women’s Economic Status
  • Scientific Objectivity and Expertise
  • Information to Help Protect and Advance Women and Girls

back to top


Proposed Guidelines on Sensitive Homeland Security Information

The law that created the Department of Homeland Security (the Homeland Security Act) included a provision that required the federal government to safeguard and share "homeland security information" with government officials, public health professionals, firefighters and others in order to respond to a terrorist attack. The Act charges the President with issuing a set of regulations that will establish the parameters of the sharing system and the guidelines for participating in it. The President has delegated that responsibility to the Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security.

Under the auspices of fighting terrorism, the Department is poised to write - without guarantees for public input - procedures that could sweep up otherwise publicly available information that has nothing to do with terrorism into a zone of secrecy while subjecting millions of Americans to confidentiality agreements.

In August 2003, seventy-five organizations representing librarians, journalists, scientists, environmental groups, privacy advocates, and others sent a letter [LINK TO PDF] to Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge calling on the Department of Homeland Security to allow public input on procedures for "safeguarding" and sharing a vaguely defined set of information between firefighters, police officers, public health researchers and federal, state, and local governments. The letter asks Secretary Ridge to release a draft version of the new procedures - which would not themselves contain classified information - for the public to comment on. It also requests that DHS address public comments in writing a final version.

Joint letter to Secretary Tom Ridge (27 August 2003) ( PDF)

back to top


15 December 2003
ALA submitted comments on a proposed OMB Bulletin on Peer Review and Information Quality. ALA expressed concern that the effect of this proposed bulletin would be to delay the government's use and dissemination of information.

ALA commented on

  • the proposed further expansion of the possibility for delays in dissemination of information due to challenges to agency compliance with information quality guidelines;
  • the provision that would encourage agencies to conduct their external peer review outside the requirements of the Federal Advisory Committee Act;
  • the scope and content of the proposed external peer review; and
  • the potential disqualification of reviewers who have " in recent years, advocated a position on the specific matter at issue."

Letter (PDF)

back to top


Restrictions On/Removals Of Public Access

In the aftermath of September 11, 2001, agencies – at both the federal and state levels – began to take a series of actions that limited or prevented public access to previously available government information. The situation is fluid and evolving, with some agencies re-posting some information--but not all--so it is difficult to know what is no longer publicly available. It is also difficult to know what is not being made available in the first instance.

back to top


Other Removals or Restrictions

Since September 2001, publications that had been out and widely available to the public--some for many years--have been withdrawn from online access. The bibliographic information about them has also been removed. Much of this information is of importance to the scientific community.

Recently, on November 3, 2003, 46 organizations wrote to Representatives Mark Green and Christopher Shays to express their dismay at the discontinuation of the "Index of Congressional Research Service Reports." This service had provided for public access to CRS reports through portals on the two Members' web sites. The Index was a pilot on which the plug has been pulled.

As the taxpayer-funded research arm of Congress, the Congressional Research Service (CRS) provides research materials that are among the best produced by the federal government.They explain, with fairness and clarity, the controversies and complexities surrounding the most pressing issues of our day. While Members have traditionally made individual reports available on an ad hoc basis, CRS has long resisted providing direct public access to these materials, considering them information prepared on the request of and for the use of Members.

Letter (PDF)

The Thurgood Marshall Law Library of the University of Maryland School of Law has begun to create an  online collection by providing links to CRS Reports available on the Web and by purchasing copies of relevant reports.

Other useful web sources of CRS reports include the following subject archives:

Less recently, the Energy Department decided to suppress thousands of documents from its Information Bridge Web service. Many of them are scientific research papers from national labs that contain keywords such as "nuclear" or "chemical" and "storage." We understand that all but a few, unspecified, documents have been returned to public access.

The Defense Technical Information Center has removed thousands of documents from online public access. While it is planned for panels of scientific experts to be assembled to assess whether the documents should once again be made available to the public, documents that were never classified may be, and ones that were declassified may be reclassified as state secrets.

ALA, AALL, ARL and other public interest organizations have been in communication with the Administration about these concerns and have urged the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) to encourage federal agencies to engage their publics in ongoing discussion about these issues and to develop criteria to inform their decisions about removing materials. Link to a memo on ARL's website regarding the "Removal or Destruction of Federal Depository Library Documents."

ALA, AALL, ARL have held a conversation with the National Archives and Records Administration about guidance issued to its components regarding screening of documents for critical infrastructure and other sensitive data in the post-September 11th environment. We have recommended to NARA that it maintain a register of all documents withdrawn or withheld as a result of concerns following the September 11th terrorist attacks. See below for a copy of a letter sent to the Deputy Archivist at NARA.

Lists  of Information Taken Down or Restricted at Government and Other Sites:

back to top


  Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) Critical Energy Infrastructure Information

After the September 11 attacks, FERC limited access to huge amounts of information that it controls and released an initial policy statement addressing this issue in October 2001.

On January 16, 2002, FERC announced a Notice of Inquiry (NOI) (published in the Federal Register on January 23, 2002) seeking public input on possible regulatory changes that would allow the agency to restrict unfettered general public access to what it termed Critical Energy Infrastructure Information (CEII). ALA submitted comments (see ALA FERC comments to FERC #1 under related files listed below).

On September 5, 2002, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) announced plans to aggressively restrict public access to government information it deems sensitive. Under this rulemaking proposal any information deemed potentially useful to a person planning an attack on "production, generation, transportation, transmission or distribution of energy" would be made exempt from the Freedom of Information Act's (FOIA mandatory disclosure requirement and overseen by a "critical energy infrastructure coordinator" who would process non-FOIA requests. ALA again submitted comments (see ALA Comments to FERC #2 under related files listed below).

On March 3, 2003, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) published in the Federal Register its final rule restricting access to critical energy infrastructure information (CEII) and establishing new procedures outside of the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) for requesting access. This rule is the first permanent action by a government agency restricting access to information that was previously available to the public.

FERC utilized several justifications to make its case that the agency is not altering or ignoring its responsibilities under FOIA, including:

  • A competitive harm exemption.

The Commission asserts that, because a terrorist attack on a facility would result in financial harm to that facility, any information that could be used by terrorists could be exempt from disclosure.

  • A mandatory exemption, as its disclosure would undermine its program effectiveness.

Companies are legally required to cooperate with and submit information to FERC. But, the Commission argued, if CEII were disclosed by the Commission, companies would not be as trusting of the Commission and less forthcoming in the more subjective portions of their submissions. According to FERC this would impair its ability to effectively function.

  • A law enforcement exemption.

FERC indicated that, as it is a regulatory agency required to implement several federal laws, including the Federal Power Act and Natural Gas Act, then it may utilize this exemption. The FOIA exemption for law enforcement activities has typically been used to protect information about ongoing criminal investigations or procedures being conducted by the FBI, CIA or police.

For further information, see:

back to top


"Re-Evaluation" of Department of Education Web Site

The Department of Education has reorganized its web site. As part of ALA's ongoing work to ensure permanent public access to government information, the American Library Association joined several other groups, including the National Education Association, the American Educational Research Association and the National Knowledge Industry Association in writing a letter requesting information about the U.S. Department of Education intentions to reorganize and/or remove key public web pages. ALA and AERA met with the Department in late June. We are continuing to work with these organizations to follow up with the Department. It appears that the Department has continued to make older materials available as "Archived material" from the newer sites, although it is not easily found.

back to top