Latest Web worry: fake fed sites

As they step up their use of the World Wide Web to disseminate government information,
agencies are finding a new nemesis in cyberspace: the copycat Web site.

The problem is serious enough that the Federal Webmasters group has planned to discuss
it at an upcoming meeting.

"It's a tremendous problem, both for me as a user of the Internet and as a
business person," said Pat O'Hern, senior Internet consultant for Utopia Inc. of
Waltham, Mass., a Web site developer and service provider. "We have a tendency to
believe anything we see in print as accurate."

For instance, if you look on the Web for information about our national parks and visit
the National Park Service Park Watch page at,
  you might be surprised to find that NPS has been taken over by radical
environmentalists bent on destroying the parks and turning them over to the United

But do not get too concerned. If you check out the real NPS site at http://www.nps.govyou will find that things are
fairly normal at our national parks.

The shadow site, with its official-looking pages and similar Web address, is maintained
by the Property Rights Alliance of Maple Valley, Wash., to publicize what it sees as
mismanagement of our national parks. It has been described as confusing and even downright
deceptive by the National Parks and Conservation Association, a private nonprofit citizens

NPS officials are less critical of the site.

"Since we really can't do anything about it, we don't perceive it as a
problem," NPS webmaster Paul Handly said.

The Internet does not provide the clues to credibility that people can get from
face-to-face conversations, and inexpensive technology can lend an air of authority to any
Web site.

"The Internet is a new medium, and we are not familiar with the precautions we
need to put into place," O'Hern said.

Walter R. Houser, the Veterans Affairs Department's webmaster and a GCN columnist, said
the rule of thumb for Web surfers looking for information is "let the user

"Know your source," he said. Pay attention to the address of the site you are
visiting and the context of the material, he advised. Because users hop from site to site
via links, they often do not notice the address, which can be a clue to the source.

For officials trying to protect their sites from copycats, the options are limited. One
tactic is to register your address and other similar addresses in as many domains as
possible. The Park Service, for example, could have registered the addresses
and and forestalled the Park Watch page from using these.

But the number of domains used in Internet addresses is growing, with .bus and
others being added to the already familiar .gov, .mil, .edu, .org
and , .com. Registering one address costs $100.

"Trying to buy up all the ones with your acronym or name might be
impractical," Houser said.

There might be some legislative relief for commercial users, he said. "There is a
movement afoot to provide a company that has a trademark name some rights to that
name" in an Internet address.

Handly at NPS said that the best guarantee of accurate government information on the
Web is the address, because all official government sites end in .gov for civilian
agencies and .mil for the military.

NPS concentrates on creating credibility through the quality of information on its
sites, without worrying about what other sites are doing, Handly said. NPS promotes its
Web site by keeping the address in the public eye as much as possible. All park brochures
now include the address for the park's Web page.

NPS site receives 600,000 visits a month, and Handly is confident that sheer volume
will keep the site out in front in public perception. He does not see Park Watch as a

"There might be a time when we point to Park Watch" from the NPS site, he
said. "We're not against pointing to people with contrary views," as long as the
information the provide is accurate, a standard he does not believe Park Watch has yet

But Handly keeps a sense of humor about the issue. He sent Park Watch an e-mail message
complimenting it on the page and requesting a link to the official NPS site. "I can't
understand why they haven't linked to us yet," he added.

About the Author

William Jackson is a Maryland-based freelance writer.

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