Government Websites and the Shutdown Showdown: Amber Alerts Down, ‘Let’s Move’ Up

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The White House has shut down some websites, and left others open – why? Image by Decoded Science

During the shutdown of the United States Government due to conflict between political parties, you may notice some of your favorite websites are displaying a logo and message indicating that the site is down. Other websites are up and running, while displaying a disclaimer that the information is not updated during the shutdown, while others are running as normal. The White House issued guidance on which sites would remain up and down, but there appears to be some confusion about how websites work.

Keeping a Website Up and Running: Costs Involved

What does it cost to keep a government website up and running? As with any other website, there are a few different associated costs. Imagine you are sending an email to your best friend. The email you are typing is a mini-example of a website. It requires a host name – that’s your email address. It requires someone to write the content – that’s you. It requires storage for the information – that’s your email program. It requires power and an Internet connection – that’s your home network, or the coffee-shop, depending on your location.

Now in the case of the website, we need a URL – that’s the name of the website, such as whitehouse.gov. We also need government workers to write and/or update the information. The site requires storage space on a server, which requires electricity and Internet access just like your computer.

Registering and paying for a domain name is an annual activity at most; we can assume that the federal government is keeping up with their ownership of domain names, so there’s no additional costs associated there.

Writing and updating content is not necessary for maintaining information already in place, so this incurs no additional costs. For example, President Obama’s Change.gov website is still up and available. This content has been static since he was serving in the ‘office of President elect,’ and is still available during this shutdown.

Shutting down or maintaining sites may depend entirely on their host location. If the government has already paid for the server’s space, access, power, and maintenance, there’s no need to shut down the site. If the site is hosted in a location that requires additional payments for service, it would not remain up.

Websites Up and Running: But Blocked During the Shutdown

Saving money during the shutdown makes sense. However, there’s one tiny wrinkle. Many sites are up – but blocked. When you access the site, you’ll find that some content is available, while other content is not. Julian Sanchez at the Cato Institute noted on the 1st of October that the Federal Trade Commission’s website shows full content for a moment, and then forwards to the error message. I haven’t been able to duplicate this, however – it’s possible that the non-furloughed government workers still present have updated the website to properly show a down-status during this difficult time when no updates or access are possible due to the shutdown.

Here is one problem with the current shutdown policy when it comes to websites: If one part of a website is up, the government is already paying for the entire website’s server space, electricity, maintenance, and any other costs associated with maintaining the site.

There are no cost-savings in keeping part of a site open and closing the remainder. There are also no cost-savings in simply placing a cover page over a fully-functional website, and blocking access.

Apparently, however, according to White House guidance, the decision to shut down or maintain a website during the shutdown isn’t based on the costs of maintaining the website.

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