Original URL: http://www.theregister.co.uk/2009/04/03/google_on_washington/

Google force feeds Web 2.0 to US gov

And it comes right back up...

By Cade Metz

Posted in Government, 3rd April 2009 23:24 GMT

Web 2.0 Expo When uber-Googler Andrew McLaughlin joined the Barack Obama Transition Team, charged with prepping the new administration for inauguration day, he had dreams of "bringing Web 2.0 to Washington."

But he soon realized the US government is the sort of operation that can't use the interwebs without printing every page. Quite literally.

"My story is the story of a [San Francisco] Bay Area nerd who goes to Washington and encounters some rather surprising obstacles - surprising in the sense that they are more tenacious and more obscure than you might think," Google's director of global public policy told Tim 2.0'Reilly's Web 2.0 Expo this morning.

"The kind of things that we were trying to do would be regarded as kindergarten-level, rudimentary technology implementations in the Silicon Valley, private-sector, tech-startup kind of world. But in government, they're viewed as a massive revolution in both form and approach."

McLaughlin was part of the transition team's Technology Innovation and Government Reform group. TIGR, for short. He spent three months in Washington, working to hasten a move away from stove-pipe tech contracts towards everyday web apps running on commodity hardware. And most of his efforts were completely useless.

In theory, the so-called Web 2.0 puts technological power in the hands of world+dog. It takes traditionally complicated and expensive tasks - broadcasting video, for instance - and simplifies them so that anyone can instantly partake. But that doesn't include the federal government, which has extreme problems dealing with simplicity.

The first thing McLaughlin ran into was the government's acquisition and procurement rules, which apply to almost anything the government might purchase or make use of. The rules require competitive bidding. "It raises the question: 'If the government wants to use a free online service like Flicker or Facebook or YouTube, does it have to go through a competitive bidding process?'" McLaughlin says.

"Even though these apps are free, they're part of a competitive market, so presumably the answer is 'Yes.' And I can tell you that a competitive bidding process is a very elaborate, painful, time-consuming, excruciating process that very few free online services are going to be willing to take part in."

But even if the government did take competitive bids and these free online services agreed to participate and the government actually picked one, it still couldn't use the thing. At least, not as is.

For one thing, these services typically carry ads. Government agencies are restricted from carrying advertising from private individuals and businesses. "So a White House channel on YouTube or a photo stream on Flickr or a page on Facebook can't carry advertising alongside it. Otherwise, it would put it in the position of implicitly endorsing the things that are being advertised. So it would have to come up with some sort of special arrangement with these Web 2.0 services."

What's more, most of these services have unlimited liability clauses, a must if you're opening things up to world+dog. And the government doesn't do unlimited liability clauses.

"Agencies are also prevented from incurring potential debts or obligations beyond certain limits," McLaughlin explains. "The problem is that most Web 2.0 services have indemnity clauses that are unlimited. So, the user agrees to pay all costs for anything that's illegal or against the terms. The federal government can't agree to that."

So it would have to negotiate again. And once it had new terms and conditions in place, it would still refuse to actually use the service. Most government agencies prevent their employees from visiting sites like YouTube and Facebook. "These services are presumed to be social rather than job-related."

Oh, and then there's Section 508, which requires that government information access should be equal for disabled and non-disabled government employees and US citizens at large. With a site like YouTube, videos must be transcribed.

But first, we must print out the internet...

Now, the White House did jump all these hurdles in streaming Obama's weekly radio addresses to the masses via YouTube. But then it ran into the persistent cookie issue. Following the DoubleClick scandal of the late 90s, all government sites are barred from using persistent browser cookies, a staple of Google's ad-happy video-sharing services.

When the White House embedded YouTube video on the presidential blog, it was breaking the rules. The adminstration caught a tremendous amount of flack, and YouTube was forced to offer a workaround - which some are still unhappy about.

And finally, there's the Presidential Records Act - McLaughlin's, um, favorite impediment to the government entering the 21st century. The Presidential Records Act requires that all documentary materials related to the presidential office must be saved for posterity.

"The problem is that everything must be kept on paper," McLaughlin says. "So, government web masters have to sit and print snapshots of their websites on paper. If you do a blog post, you have to print it. This is a real pain, particularly if the site does comments. You have to print out all the comments too."

"So then the question is 'What about status updates on Facebook? Do you have to print that too?' The answer is 'Yes.'"

When Mr. McLaughlin went to Washington, he assumed that all this could be changed in an instant with a presidential order or two. But he was wrong. "I wrote the draft. But it didn't happen."

Most of these rules are statutory. In other words, you have to work your way through the bureaucracy to change the bureaucracy. It could happen, McLaughlin says, but not without a complete cultural overhaul. "The good news is that President Obama personally really gets this," McLaughlin says. "But we need to embed more good people in these government agencies."

If you're a good person, he suggests you embed yourself. ®