Book cover

The myth that federal government Internet sites offer only boring statistics and stuffy reports was forever laid to rest on September 11, 1998.

That's the day the report of Independent Counsel Kenneth Starr, who investigated President Bill Clinton's affair with Monica Lewinsky, was placed on the Internet by the House of Representatives. Millions of people read part of all of the X-rated document within days of its release, making it one of the most-read government publications in the nation's history.

The release of Starr's report focused attention on disseminating government information over the Internet. But the Internet's power was not news to the agencies throughout the federal government that have been using it for years to make a huge array of information available for free.

Through federal sites, Internet users can watch videos of NASA vehicles exploring Mars, read bills that are being debated by Congress, learn how to help their children do better in school, find a job, download tax forms, research health problems, apply for student financial aid for college, view treasures in the collections of the Library of Congress and the Smithsonian Institution, explore previously secret FBI files about everyone from Lucille Ball to Adolf Hitler, trace their ancestors, search the Library of Congress catalog, find solutions to common consumer problems, and much, much more.

Many federal Internet sites are enormously popular. In May 1998, according to the tracking firm Relevant Knowledge, 1.8 million people over age twelve visited NASA's main site. In that same month the main sites operated by the Library of Congress and the National Institutes of Health had 1.2 million visitors each.

Making federal information available to the public over the Internet has not been without problems and controversies. In some cases, agencies have been dragged kicking and screaming to the Internet. The most notable example is the Securities and Exchange Commission, which balked at placing its treasure trove of corporate data on the Internet. The SEC relented only after activist and Internet pioneer Carl Malamud shamed the agency by creating a nonprofit site offering all of its data. When Malamud's funding ran out, he challenged the agency to continue his work, and it reluctantly did. Malamud has also shamed other agencies into placing vast amounts of data online.

In other cases, federal agencies have claimed that documents placed online reveal secrets or threaten national security. In September 1998 the Department of Defense ordered a review of all DOD Web sites for sensitive information that might be useful to terrorists and other foes. The DOD's action plan said that some of its Web sites "provide our adversaries with a potent instrument to obtain, correlate and evaluate an unprecedented volume of aggregated information regarding DOD capabilities, infrastructure, personnel and operational procedures." The U.S. Army took the drastic action of temporarily shutting down all its Web sites until they could be checked and sensitive information removed.

The most controversial issue involves the huge amount of federal information that has not yet been placed online. Perhaps the most egregious offender in this regard is Congress. That's ironic, since in November 1994 Newt Gingrich, then soon to be Speaker of the House of Representatives, promised a new openness in government. He said House rules would be changed so that congressional information "will be available to any citizen in the country at the same moment that it is available to the highest paid Washington lobbyist."

Despite some moves in the right direction, Gingrich's promise remains largely unfulfilled. The full text of all bills introduced in Congress is now available on the Internet, but draft versions of bills circulating around Capitol Hill – and with lobbyists – are not. Nor can Americans turn online to watch how bills change during committee markups and other steps in the legislative process. Lobbyists have easy access to this information.

One of the most basic pieces of congressional information – how individual members vote on specific bills – is not available in a useful format on any congressional Web site. Nor is testimony at most congressional hearings, research reports by the Congressional Research Service, financial disclosure reports filed by members of Congress, or lobbyist disclosure forms filed with Congress – even though they're filed electronically.

What's New in This Edition

This fourth edition of How to Access the Federal Government on the Internet contains descriptions of more than 900 federal government Internet sites, hundreds of which are new in this book. Here are some highlights from the new sites:

  • FedStats has links to federal statistical data at sites across the Internet that you can search or browse by topic.
  • The GOVBOT database lets you search more than 800,000 Web pages at federal government and military sites.
  • The U.S. Consumer Gateway has links to hundreds of consumer publications at dozens of federal Web sites.
  • The U.S. Government Documents Ready Reference Collection from Columbia University provides links to dozens of the most popular federal government documents.
  • The Online Women's Business Center, which is operated by the Small Business Administration, offers a great collection of information for women (and anyone else) starting a small business.
  • Safe Places to Play offers an excellent collection of annotated links to Web pages for kids operated by a variety of federal agencies.
  • The U.S. Army Chemical and Biological Defense Command site has fact sheets about chemical weapons stored at facilities across the United States.
  • FAFSA on the Web provides an online form that students can use to apply for federal financial aid for college.
  • Federal Resources for Educational Excellence (FREE) offers links to hundreds of teaching and learning resources developed by more than thirty federal agencies.
  • The Chemical Scorecard lets you find out which manufacturing plants are releasing toxic chemicals into your community.
  • The Bosnia Report distributes a weekly e-mail newsletter about events in Bosnia.
  • Congress Today offers a searchable database of congressional votes from 1996 to the present.
  • Cancer Trials has information about clinical trials of cancer therapies.
  • The Food and Nutrition Information Center has a database that contains nutrient data for thousands of foods.
  • The CDC Travel Information site offers health advice for travelers to any country in the world.
  • The U.S. Colored Troops site has personal information about more than 230,000 soldiers who served in the U.S. Colored Troops during the Civil War.
  • The NASA Image eXchange (NIX) links together hundreds of thousands of the best images from NASA.

How to Start a Search

Searching for information on the Internet can be frustrating. It's not like looking for information at your local library, which has a catalog listing everything it owns and librarians who can help if you get lost. On the Internet, you're dumped into cyberspace and left to your own devices. There are millions of files out there – somewhere. How do you find them?

If you're looking for federal government information, you've made a good start by reading this book. The index should be particularly helpful in your search. But this book cannot list every federal Internet site or every document. If what you're looking for is not listed here, your best bet is to try one of the sites listed under "Gateways" in the "Access to Information" section of this book. Most of these gateway sites have huge collections of federal government documents, in addition to links to hundreds of other federal government Internet sites. Any one of them is an excellent starting point in a search for federal government information on the Internet.

You also can locate federal information by using search engines such as AltaVista, InfoSeek, or Lycos. But a word of caution: The search engines are most effective if you're searching for a narrow subject. A search on a broad topic can bury you in results. For example, a recent search of AltaVista on "Bill Clinton" returned 146,014 documents. Similarly, searches on "Social Security" returned 218,985 documents, "federal budget" turned up 47,075, and "Newt Gingrich" returned 40,760.

How to Use This Book

The sites in this book are arranged alphabetically by subject as logically as possible. However, sites frequently have files about many subjects, so you should check the index for topics of interest.

Most sites have hundreds or thousands of files, making it impossible to describe fully what's available at each one. You should use this book as a general guide to a site, not as a catalog of every file and resource.

Some of the sites listed here are still being developed. This means they may not always be available, they may have bugs, or their offerings may be slimmer than you think upon first inspection. When you use the Internet, patience is a virtue. If you can't access a site because it has crashed, try it again another time. If the site has bugs, send an e-mail message to the system administrator reporting the problem. And if you find empty sub-directories at a Web site, try back in a few weeks after the site's manager has had more time to develop the resources.

The basic access information for each site is listed below its description. This access information varies from site to site, but you will find the following whenever it's applicable:

  • Access method(s): The tool(s) you can use to access the site, such as the World Wide Web, FTP, Telnet, and E-mail.
  • To access: The site's address(es) on the Internet.
  • E-mail: The e-mail address where you can send questions about the site.
  • Dial-in access: The telephone number you can dial with your communications software to access the site directly without going through the Internet.
  • Available: The hours that the site is available. Sites are available twenty-four hours a day unless noted.
  • Note: Special instructions for accessing or using the site.

Two other pieces of access information are provided for mailing lists:

  • Subject line: The word(s) you must type on an e-mail message's subject line to subscribe to a mailing list. The words you must type are in bold type. If this line is blank in the instructions, leave it blank in your message as well.
  • Message: The word(s) you must type in an e-mail message's message area to subscribe to a mailing list. The words you must type are in bold type. Any words that are in italics you must replace with the correct information. For example, if the message in the instructions reads subscribe listname firstname lastname, you must type subscribe followed by the list's name, your first name, and your last name.

A Final Word

There's a widespread belief that "everything" is available somewhere on the Internet if you only know where to look. This isn't true for "everything," nor is it true for all federal government documents. Although vast quantities of federal information are available on the Internet – and more information is being placed online each day – much is still unavailable. The Internet is simply one tool in any search for federal information, just as books, paper documents, CD-ROMs, bulletin board systems (BBSs), and commercial databases are tools. Although the Internet is a wondrous tool, it is not a panacea. Nor is it a replacement for a good librarian. If you're serious about searching for federal government information, a good librarian remains your most valuable resource.

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