When President Obama took office in January, he brought with him the promise of transparency. Translated in the digital age, this means the ability for citizens to gain easy access to federal information online, and to communicate with their nation's leaders in ways unprecedented.
The president and his tech-savvy minions have caught some flak for not quite upholding that promise. But the problems the government faces when trying to effectively use the Web are daunting and go far past simply getting the guy in office who might be interested in leveraging the technology.
Speaking at the recent Web 2.0 Expo in San Francisco, Andrew McLaughlin, head of global public policy and government affairs at Google (Nasdaq: GOOG), detailed some of these problems. McLaughlin spent three months in Washington as a member of the Obama/Biden transition team and described his experience as "the story of a Bay Area nerd who goes to Washington and encounters some rather surprising obstacles."
Terms of Service: Unlike the rest of us, the government actually reads the TOS agreements on the various consumer sites of the Web-o-sphere. In fact, not reading these "line by line" (unlike those spending bills in Congress) could result in some real trouble. For example, McLaughlin pointed out that the feds can't agree to indemnity clauses that most sites have in their terms saying that the user is liable for damages. The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) ran into trouble here when trying to use Second Life for rehabilitation purposes, because Linden Lab assigns "unlimited liability" to the end user.
Apart from indemnity clauses, TOSs often publish legal jurisdiction which says that the contract will be governed by a particular state's laws. "The federal government is not subject to state law. It's only subject to federal law," says McLaughlin. "For these reasons even just signing up for free online service is harder than you might think."
Federal Law: That whole United States Code thing can tend to get in the way for our elected officials trying to get hip with the Web 2.0 squares. McLaughlin pointed to Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 which states that the disabled must have access to and use of federal information comparable to that available to the non-disabled. In that sense, asks McLaughlin, "Can the government sign a contract with a Web service that is not Section 508-compliant?"
Management Statutes: While the idea of making all records electronic seems like an easy solution to various problems, for the federal government it's painstaking. McLaughlin pointed to the Presidential Records Act which requires all documentary records and materials to be kept. "This requires that everything be kept in paper," he says. "No lie -- government Web masters have to sit and print snapshots of their Websites on a regular basis. Do a blog post, gotta print it. It becomes a real headache when you have a Website that takes comments."
Endorsements: There's an understanding that the president is not to endorse any commercial services. Therefore, when the president embeds a YouTube video on his site, is he endorsing YouTube? This seems silly when considering YouTube as a media outlet, like, say The New York Times. But the White House Counsel takes this issue seriously.
Apart from overcoming these obstacles by revising federal laws and regulations -- no mean feat -- in order to achieve any real change, says McLaughlin, it all comes down to culture.
"I thought we could wipe away this stuff on Day 1 with an executive order or two. That's not the case. The way we're going to get a better government is to change the culture, and that's hard to do. It's a laborious process."
— Nicole Ferraro, Site Editor, Internet Evolution