GSA sounds 508 false alarm

An apparent call at the General Services Administration to eradicate Web pages as a way to comply with new accessibility standards was just a misunderstanding, a GSA official said Thursday.

An April 10 memo labeled "urgent" instructed Web managers at GSA to begin deleting files that do not meet new standards for accessibility. Web sites that failed to meet the standards "will go dark" after June 14, the memo warned.

One GSA worker described the instruction as a "slash and burn" method of complying with a law that requires government Web sites to be made accessible to people with disabilities.

An e-mail alarm spread through the GSA and beyond, advising that as many as 30,000 Web pages might be headed toward oblivion.

But it was all a misunderstanding, said John Sindelar, deputy associate administrator for GSA's Office of Governmentwide Policy. Sindelar said the GSA is not instructing its Web managers to delete documents as a means of complying with the accessibility standards. The agency merely wants to do some routine housekeeping. "We are going to take [the] next two weeks cleaning out old, unused pages," he said.

The standards are spelled out in a new law, Section 508, and federal agencies have until June 21 to modify their Web sites so they can be used or "accessed" by people with disabilities such as impaired vision and hearing.

At GSA, Web managers have an even tighter deadline for making their sites accessible. "We lit a fire under all of our managers by saying that if they do not have their sites compliant by June 14, they will go dark. But we don't expect any of them to go dark," he said. Instead, Sindelar said, Web sites are expected to be made accessible, including PowerPoint presentations and PDF files.

The April 10 memo gave Web managers a different impression, however: "Immediately, please review your program Web sites and start to delete old files. We also have to delete any non-508-compliant files such as PowerPoint presentation and PDF files unless other arrangements have been made," the memo by Tokey Bradford states.

The Bradford memo, Sindelar said, was "really a reinterpretation of guidance" issued April 6 by Joseph McKay, chief information officer for the Office of Governmentwide Policy. In his memo, McKay instructed Web content managers to review 31,000 GSA Web pages and eliminate those that are outdated or duplicates.

Although McKay's memo discussed Section 508 compliance, it focused on GSA's plans to move the contents of about 70 Web sites into a GSA Internet portal. In a telephone interview April 12, McKay said the GSA wants to get rid of old and redundant files so it does not have to transfer them to the portal.

McKay said he expects about 20,000 of the pages to be purged. Most reside in servers, where they were left after becoming outdated or unneeded. "People create new content and update pages and they save the old pages. They're simply there as a safety net. They have accumulated over time," McKay said.

Valuable information won't vanish, McKay promised. Managers who request them will be provided with CD-ROM copies of all pages and files they delete from Web servers.

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