It is only through experience and practice that issues of the use of the Internet for distribution of information to the public can be addressed. The web is not just an extension of other public information provision and information management processes. Procedures from paper information distribution need to be adapted and tested. Information flows on the Internet are different, in important ways from previous communications. Applicable law needs to be confirmed and some new case law made. Those who have pioneered this can teach others. However, there is still no substitute for experience.
Australian Defense Home Page
The Australian Defense Home Page was launched on March 2, 1995. Created as part of an initiative by the Commonwealth Internet Reference Group, it uses a proactive process, which is somewhat unusual for a bureaucratic organization. The site was intended to provide unclassified, non-sensitive information to the general public. It contains information about defense structure, military and civilian recruitment, industry policy (particularly IT policy), and general public relations information, such as media releases.
There are also home pages for the Minister for Defense and the Minister for Defense Industry, Science and Personnel. These contain photos and biographies of the ministers, media releases, and speeches. At the time these documents were released there was no formal policy for the distribution of information on-line. The policy was developed by analogy to existing paper-based procedures, using experience from the academic and research community and from overseas organisations.
A set of short, common sense guidelines were developed based on the U.S. Department of Defense' guidelines. Such guidelines attempt to balance the need for flexible and interesting information delivery against the need for authority and security of government information. The initial guidelines were deliberately made very general and liberal. As experience was gained, more specific and, in some cases, more restrictive procedures were put in place.
One example of a more restrictive approach is in the area of domain names. Defense's first official web site was provided by the Australian Defense Force Academy (ADFA) from 1995 until 1998. This used ADFA's slightly quirky domain name (http://www.adfa.oz.au/). Some components of Defense acquired their own domain names and used separate in-house or outsourced servers. This was changed to bring the sites under one domain name and limit separate names to elements which have a separate public identity, such as the Defense Signals Directorate (http://www.dsd.gov.au/).
Online Press Releases
An example of the need to adjust previous paper procedures is in the handling of media releases. Before the advent of the Internet, media releases were sent to the media, but were generally available within Defense and to interested members of industry and the general public. The assumption was that whatever was in a media release had been approved for release and was therefore "public" and could be put on a web page for general use. There are, however, some exceptions to this.
Problems arise from the wide distribution of web documents, their long-term storage, and a non-specialist audience. Media releases can include details, such as mobile and home telephone numbers for media contact. Some of these may not be suitable for public release, particularly as media releases may be available over a long period. On occasions the media are given alerts of upcoming events under embargo. There is little logic if an embargoed document is freely available to the general public. The issues with online media releases have largely been resolved.
First Federal Budget Online
In early 1995 the Commonwealth Internet Reference Group (CIRG) met to discuss how to put the 1995-96 Commonwealth budget online. The budget is an important and sensitive document, which must be released precisely on time, along with supplementary material from agencies. At the CIRG meeting, a co-operative approach was proposed, with one agency providing a central index to agency material. This would allow the budget page and links to be tested in advance. The content would then be added by the individual agencies on budget night. The National Library of Australia and the Department of Administrative Services provided the central index.
This approach reduced the risk of a single point of failure, if all material was retained on one central site, and allowed each agency to control their own budget material. The practice has been followed for subsequent budgets. This system relies on the links from a known and trusted web site to authenticate the content on related sites. More secure systems are feasible but require a system of digital certificates and public keys.
The Web for Military Exercises
Exercise Kangaroo 95 took place in an area of over 4 million square kilometers, across the top end of Australia and involved over 17,000 Australian Defense Force troops, as well as visiting units from the United States, Malaysia, Singapore, Papua New Guinea, the UK, and Indonesia. As part of the Kangaroo series, the Directorate of Public Relations placed personnel in the field to prepare public information on the exercise. Defense transmitted reports and photographs from the exercise area via the Defense data network. Reports were received at Defense headquarters in Canberra and uploaded to a publicly accessible Internet server at the Australian Defense Force Academy. This technique was used again for Exercise Tandem Thrust 97, held in conjunction with U.S. Pacific Command, and most recently for operations in East Timor.
For more information, visit (http://www.tomw.net.au/).