Change Dept.: White House Web site

President Barack Obama’s revolutionary campaign Web site, Change.org, which lived for three months as Change.gov, has now morphed into WhiteHouse.gov. Or put another way, the old WhiteHouse.gov of the Bush administration has taken on a new identity – if not yet a new look and feel – under the new occupant of the Oval Office.

At first glance, the new White House Web site does not seem all that much different from the old one, especially in functionality. The most obvious addition was a blog by Macon Phillips, director of new media in the Obama administration.

And although there are promises of much more to come — particularly in the use of Web 2.0 technologies to make the site more interactive and accessible to comments from average citizens — the online pathfinders in the new administration may soon confront some knotty legal, constitutional and practical hurdles.

Phillips’ first blog post on the new site detailed three priorities: communication, transparency and participation.

Phillips wrote that the White House site — like the Internet more broadly — will play an important role in encouraging citizen participation.

For example, the White House will publish all nonemergency legislation on the site, giving anyone interested five days to read and comment on it before the president signs it, Phillips wrote. The administration will also post executive orders and proclamations on the site, he added, making these documents much easier to find than when they were buried on the site of the Office of Management and Budget.

Although the site looks similar to the previous incarnation, there are clues to suggest changes are on the way, said Sarah Granger, a contributing editor at techPresident and the Personal Democracy Forum.

One such clue is the site’s notice that all third-party content posted by visitors to the site will be searchable under a Creative Commons license, Granger said. That means anyone may copy, distribute and transmit work under the license, and its inclusion shows that Obama’s team has laid the groundwork for user comments.

But that also means the White House webmasters may encounter more difficult hurdles soon, said Peter Townshend, a partner in the McDermott Will and Emery law firm’s San Diego office.

Inevitably, some users will post obscene or libelous comments, Townshend said, creating a whole new set of problems in deciding what to keep and what to delete.

“If this were a private site, then there would be little issue with removing any sort of content for almost whatever reason,” Townshend said. “But as a government site, particularly the White House, whoever runs the site will need to be very, very careful when they remove content from the site.” Site administrators will have to consider First Amendment concerns that administrators of commercial sites do not, Townshend said. A post that is just profane ranting is an easy call, but a post that contains objectionable language while also making legitimate political arguments falls into a gray area.

“Should the site remove the entire posting or edit the foul language?” Townshend asked. “It is a tough call. I’m just glad I don’t have to make it."

Administrators will probably police the posting themselves and provide a mechanism for general users to report abuse, he said.

Online strategist Steven Clift, who maintains a blog covering e-democracy at publicus.net, said Phillips and his team will have to experiment with features that government officials have so far not needed to consider.

One feature Clift recommends is a system that requires users to post under their real names. The use of real names would encourage decorum without censorship and also give the comments more credibility in the eyes of other readers, he said.

“If they want to give real people power, they need to encourage people to use real names and cities and states,” he said.

TechPresident’s Granger expects to see further changes on Whitehouse.gov and other federal agency sites as they figure out what works and what doesn’t.

It’s possible that other agencies will feel challenged to beef up the interactivity of their own sites, but WhiteHouse.gov itself needs to grow some first, she said.

“We need to give the new administration some time to settle in and figure out what else they are doing with Whitehouse.gov and give the other government offices some time to look at the example being set and determine what else they can do to augment their current efforts,” she said.

On Obama’s first full day in office, Jan. 21, the executive orders and press pool reports sent out in e-mail were not yet posted on the Web site. But give them time, Granger said.

“They will undoubtedly need to move faster on this sort of thing as soon as they get everything squared away for the White House staff,” she said.

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