Guidelines seen as core to Web policy

The World Wide Web Federal Consortium has published a revised set of home-page guidelines that could make up the core of the eagerly anticipated agencywide Web policy being formulated by the Office of Management and Budget.

The portion of the new guidelines that details the application of several federal laws to the Web was written by Glenn Schlarman a policy analyst with OMB's Information Policy and Technology Division and the agency's point man responsible for formulating policy to regulate the use of the Web by federal agencies.Officials hope to point to the consortium guidelines in the creation of OMB's policy he said.

The consortium guidelines take a more conciliatory approach to an agencywide Web policy than did a draft policy Schlarman began circulating in July that outlined the application of the Paperwork Reduction Act the Privacy Act and Federal Records Act and other federal laws to the Web. That version which designated all information posted to government Web sites as federal records and required agencies to establish oversight bodies to manage and control site content sparked a firestorm of debate among federal agencies. The most hotly argued point was a requirement for agencies to follow existing procedures for creating storing and disposing of federal records when updating or removing information from a Web site.

Information also would have to be recorded and archived just as paper copies are the draft policy said and agency officials would be required to notify the Government Printing Office when data posted to a Web site was changed or removed to ensure that the information would remain publicly accessible.

According to the consortium guidelines "whether information meets the threshold definition of federal records is independent of the medium in which it is produced maintained or disseminated." Therefore the fact that information is posted on a Web site does not automatically designate it a federal record.

If information posted on a site does qualify as a federal record the record copy should exist in a format and location that is readily identifiable and appropriate for access and preservation in accordance to the Federal Records Act according to the guidelines. However this record copy can include "electronic media as the access and preservation mechanism " and the guidelines do not mention notifying GPO every time a change is made.

In the new set of guidelines Schlarman has also dropped the requirement outlined in his first draft for agencies to create an oversight body that would have exercised management and content control over a Web site. That body would have ensured compliance with applicable federal laws and agencies would have been required not to establish Web sites or any other electronic presence until the oversight body was in place.Now in the consortium guidelines Schlarman urges agencies to consult with Federal Records officers Privacy Act officers and other agency personnel to answer any questions regarding the application of federal laws.

The consortium guidelines also take a softer approach to the incidental collection by government agencies of electronic mail addresses by discussion group software or by storing the electronic text and header of an e-mail message.

The OMB's draft version urged federal employees to "diligently avoid" the incidental collection of e-mail addresses and stressed that the intentional collection of addresses must be accompanied by public notice of this intent.

Consortium guidelines stressed that the incidental collection of these addresses does not have Privacy Act implications as long as the addresses are not used by federal employees.

At a Nov. 21 meeting of federal Webmasters Schlarman described the consortium guidelines as "more than adequate for every agency to follow. We think it's a terrific guideline. The new director of OMB is very interested in information technology issues and I would expect he would be interested in this issue were it presented to him."

Carlynn Thompson chairwoman of the consortium said she asked Schlarman to participate in revising the guidelines because of her concerns that the draft policy he had been circulating could stifle the creativity that the Web fosters.

"I was a little bit concerned that OMB was looking at it [the Web] as if it were a publishing system " Thompson said. "It was important for me to get Glenn to understand that the Web is a much more dynamic place. We want to make sure that the policy that is established doesn't stifle the creativity. This document...is a skeleton a model that might be taken by an agency and put into place for their internal policy."

Thompson who is also director of research development and acquisition of information support at the Defense Department's Defense Technical Information Center said Schlarman urged her to outline the philosophy of applying federal laws to the Web in the executive summary to bring home the main points to policy-makers in individual agencies.

According to that summary the guidelines are designed to "help the federal community accomplish agency missions while not inhibiting the creativity necessary to improve services to customers. The consortium tries to avoid placing unnecessary constraints on individual Web authors [and] there is no simple set of rules for agencies to follow. Every organization faces the special circumstances of its particular mission goals content customers technical capabilities and organizational culture."

The consortium which was formed three years ago by the National Science Foundation conducts and promotes research in Web technology and use.

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