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Privacy, Potheads Challenge Obama Tech Team

Tuesday, 27 Jan 2009 08:25 AM

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WASHINGTON -- President Barack Obama plans to use cutting-edge Internet tools to make the U.S. government more responsive but he'll have to overcome creaky equipment, cumbersome regulations and potential embarrassment.

Just ask Colleen Graffy, the Bush administration official whose Twitter posts about duty-free shopping and rented swimsuits during a State Department trip to Iceland drew widespread ridicule last month.

"This is why diplomats stay off the record and boring," Graffy said in a later Twitter post.

Chatty diplomats will be only one of worries Obama's administration as it tries to drag the massive federal bureaucracy into the 21st century.

Along with clunky computers and outdated rules, there is the obvious challenge of maintaining presidential dignity in the face of an often unruly online discourse.

Obama's first week in the White House gave a taste of the difficulties to come.

The administration unveiled a sleek new website the moment Obama became president, then failed to update it for days.

Staffers settling in to the White House found their Web browsers filtered and their online chat software disabled. Even Obama himself battled to hold on to his beloved Blackberry e-mail device because of hacking concerns.

On Monday, White House e-mail went down.

David Almacy can understand. The former White House Internet director arrived in 2005 with a long list of upgrades for the Bush administration's staid online presence.

"Everybody's looking at me and smirking," Almacy said of his first meeting. "They said, 'It would be great, but we can't do any of that.'"

White House staff, accustomed during the campaign to using the latest communications tools to rally supporters, are likely to find their hands tied by the same regulations, experts say. Among them:

  • Administrators who delete inappropriate comments on government websites might run afoul of the First Amendment to the Constitution, which guarantees freedom of speech.

  • Federal contracting rules designed to ensure fairness could delay software upgrades and other improvements.

  • Online video could be hampered by a 1973 law that requires the government to provide real-time access, such as closed captioning, for disabled users.

  • A 2000 privacy rule that prohibits government websites from collecting and saving users' personal information limits their ability to customize content for individual visitors.

  • A 1978 law requires most White House communications to be archived, leading the Obama White House to block Instant Messaging rather than worry about any embarrassments that might come from freewheeling online chats.

  • That law also requires Web pages to be archived every time they are changed.

  • Government websites must link to outside sites carefully, to prevent the appearance of an endorsement.

  • For these reasons, the White House may shy away from setting up a presence on popular outside sites like Facebook, which played a large role in the campaign.

    NO PLANS FOR FACEBOOK

    White House spokeswoman Jen Psaki said there are no immediate plans to set up a Facebook page.

    But the administration has managed to take some innovative technological steps.

    On Saturday, the White House posted Obama's weekly video address on YouTube, accompanied by a transcript.

    Because the video was not hosted on government servers, viewers were able to leave comments and moderate those left by others. Irrelevant and critical comments were shunted to the bottom of the pile.

    Obama has also invited citizens to comment on pending legislation before he signs it into law.

    That approach can deliver unexpected results. Before Obama took office, visitors to the transition website were asked to submit suggestions for a "Citizen's Briefing Book" that Obama would read once he settled in to the Oval Office.

    The most popular item, with 92,000 votes: "Ending marijuana prohibition." The third most popular? "Stop using federal resources to undermine states' medicinal marijuana laws."

    Pro-pot people may have gotten the president's attention, but in the end that may not matter.

    "President Obama does not support the legalization of marijuana," spokeswoman Psaki said.

    © Thomson Reuters 2009 All rights reserved

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