What's Up With The Kind-Of Sort-Of Shutdown of Government Websites?


Michelle Obama forgot how to tweet because of the shutdown. Luckily, the Post Office is unaffected, so she'll be sending her latest updates in the mail.
Credit: Barack Obama / Foter / CC BY-NC-SA

As threatened, during the government shutdown many federal agencies have sent their websites the same way as the dodo bird and the non-essential government worker. Sort of.

"Many government Web sites will be down," warned The Washington Post hours before the shutdown began. Even First Lady Michelle Obama asserted that her Twitter account would fall victim to the shutdown. It has not been updated since. Numerous sources gnashed their teeth over the possibility of the National Zoo's "Panda Cam" going dark. It did. However, as Julian Sanchez of the Cato Institute points out, there was no apparent consistent action among agencies:

It's a bit hard to make sense of why some sites remain up (some with a "no new updates" banner) while others are redirected to a shutdown notice page—and in many cases it's puzzling why a shutdown would be necessary at all.

Among his examples are NASA.gov, which redirects to a notice that the government shutdown has rendered the site unavailable. However, he poked around and found that various subdomains still work. "Still weirder," Sanchez says, is the Federal Trade Commission's (FTC) site, which previews its normal content, but suddenly snaps to a notice that prevents anyone from using the site. He points out "that means… their servers are still up and running and actually serving all the same content. In fact they're serving more content."

Mike Masnick of Techdirt.com writes, "It's difficult to see how this helps anyone at all. But it does yet a good job (yet again) of demonstrating that logic and bureaucracy don't often go well together."

According to a memorandum issued by the Office of the President, whether the digital embargoes help anyone or not is not the issue. In fact, whether "the cost of shutting down a website exceeds the cost of maintaining services" is of no significance.

There are practical explanations. Servers and websites do not run themselves. If they are to remain active, security and other features must be maintained. Likewise, any sites with active fill-out forms could lead to an overflow for agencies once the shutdown ends.

Nevertheless, Sanchez suggests NASA and the FTC may also be engaging in a virtual "Washington Monument Syndrome" to parallel the tactic of blocking the most visible government services like national parks and war memorials. The same is likely true for the First Lady's twitter account, which incurs no cost to the government whatsoever.