EDITOR'S DESK—Commentary

Wyatt Kash | GSA clears some roadblocks to expanded use of Web 2.0 tools

Just two weeks ago in this space, we argued that a number of antiquated federal rules and regulations needed to be rewritten if agencies were to act on President Barack Obama’s vision for using new technologies to engage the public online.

The administration is certainly trying to lead the charge by example. Obama’s interactive town hall meeting March 26 won wide attention, and more than 92,000 people submitted and voted on questions for the president to address.

However, as we noted then, the problem for agencies is that federal employees face a host of legal and regulatory hurdles that hamper their ability to interact with the public online.

That’s why new agreements struck by the General Services Administration with four social-media sites — YouTube, Flickr, Vimeo and blip.tv — and word that GSA is negotiating with other free sites come as welcome news (GCN.com/1319).

According to the agreements, federal employees can now use social-media tools to post, share and encourage comments on agency-related videos and photos. The agreements clear a path through a thicket of thorny legal concerns associated with standard terms and conditions that work well for individual users but conflict with the laws that govern federal agencies.

For instance, the GSA agreements remove the typical indemnification clauses that would tie agencies to unlimited-liability agreements in violation of the Anti-Deficiency Act. They also resolve issues of jurisdiction and choice of law: The agreements will be governed by U.S. law, and relevant state laws will only come into play in the absence of other federal law. And the agreements recognize the special intellectual property rights associated with government information that resides in the public domain.

To its credit, GSA persuaded providers not to charge federal account holders for using services that can easily involve premiums, negating the need for contracts. Providers will also take steps to eliminate or minimize advertising tie-ins to federal content.

How the government might use social-media tools to more effectively engage the public has become a fascinating experiment. More must be done to unwind out-of-date rules that hinder the use of such tools. But GSA has at least removed some key legal barriers, thereby empowering agency officials to join the experiment at last.

About the Author

Wyatt Kash served as chief editor of GCN (October 2004 to August 2010) and also of Defense Systems (January 2009 to August 2010). He currently serves as Content Director and Editor at Large of 1105 Media.

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