Lobbyists question take-down of websites

Lawyers and lobbyists are accusing regulatory agencies of unnecessarily blocking access to websites during the government shutdown.

"I can't help wondering whether this is a political call," a Republican telecom lawyer said. "Is it really necessary to completely cut off Internet access?"

Agencies including the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) have entirely shut down their websites, preventing the public from accessing regulations, filings and other documents.

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Congressional Republicans have accused the Obama administration of “maximizing the pain” of the shutdown to increase Democrats’ leverage in negotiations.

“It's a source of enormous frustration for those who need this type of access to conduct business,” a media industry official said. “It’s perfectly understandable why employees are furloughed in this situation but denying access to information on the website seems somewhat baffling.”

Because of the shutdown, the FTC and FCC were unable to comment.

Some other federal agencies including the Environmental Protection Agency, the Food and Drug Administration and the National Telecommunications and Information Administration have stopped updating their websites during the shutdown but old information is still available.

The FTC shutdown guide does not directly address whether the website should be kept available during a shutdown.

Instead, it directs the agency to retain up to six information technology employees “to work to ensure the integrity and security of the agency’s IT infrastructure and its availability for use by exempt employees pursuing excepted and essential law enforcement actions during the shutdown.”
 
Additionally, the agency’s shutdown guide details the consumer tools that will not be available during a shutdown, including the Do Not Call registry and the Consumer Response Center, which handled tens of thousands of questions and complaints weekly.

The FCC's shutdown plan also did not mention cutting off access to its website. According to the plan, the agency retained four employees for "critical" information technology issues.

Agencies like the FTC and FCC, are being “extremely vocal” and “almost melodramatic” about the shutdown by blocking access to their websites, according to Ashkan Soltani, technologist and privacy advocate.
 
By denying access to the agency websites and resources, agencies appear to be” actively making a point to publicize they're shut down,” Soltani said on Twitter, comparing the agencies’ actions to last year’s protests against the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA).
 
“I'm not sure why agencies need to shut down their website unless it's in protest,” he wrote. “Unless they're powering down the datacenter (which they're not) -- webserving contracts seem somewhat immune to daily budget troubles.”

It appears there is “some sort of coordinated action with many of the basic sites going dark,” Joe Hall, senior staff technologist at the Center for Democracy and Technology, said.

The FTC and the FCC “have extensive resources and guidance that not only consumers but industry needs to be able to consult,” he said.

Lawyers depend on the FCC website to access the commissioners' public statements and information on the agency's rule-making proceedings and merger reviews. The public can usually use an online database to view comments from companies and advocacy groups, as well as the agency's decisions.

The FCC has halted all of its proceedings during the government shutdown, but the Republican telecom lawyer said outside groups still want to access past documents.

The lawyer noted that before the Internet, the public could obtain documents in-person from the FCC, but even that is impossible during the shutdown.

Hall pointed to the FTC’s resources on the new Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) rule, which went into effect in July and regulates the way websites interact with users under the age of 13. When it was introduced, many in the tech world claimed the rule was complicated and would be difficult to follow.

FTC materials on the new COPPA rule — including the text of the rule and documents explaining how website operators and app developers should implement the rule — “are heavily consulted by industry and start-ups,” Hall said.

Anyone looking for the COPPA materials on the FTC website gets redirected to the agency’s shutdown page.

Some tech groups are taking it upon themselves to fill the gaps left by the agencies’ website takedowns.
 
One group, the Association for Competitive Technology (ACT), uploaded the FTC’s resources on the new COPPA rule.
 
“While Washington sorts itself out, developers continue to build apps” and need the FTC resources, ACT Executive Director Morgan Reed said.
 
In preparing for the government shutdown, ACT made sure it had the FTC resources that app developers would need but was surprised that the entire site was taken down. “You have to plan for the worst but hope for the best,” Reed said.
 
The fact that static pages – such as the COPPA resources, which wouldn’t seem to require agency maintenance – were taken down is “a little surprising” and creates a “disadvantage for the developer community that uses those resources,” Reed said.

Reed’s group saw “a need that had to filled” and “stepped up to the plate” to make the documents available so tech companies can develop apps without running afoul of the new rule, he said.

Though he was surprised, Reed said it made sense that the FTC is not maintaining static pages during the shutdown.

“You still have to pay for bandwidth,” he said.