A bunch of federal websites will shut down with the government

September 30, 2013

If the federal government is partly shut down, many online resources will be down or won't be updated. (J. Scott Applewhite/AP)

The National Zoo's panda cam won't be the only digital casualty if the government shuts down at midnight. Many government Web sites will be down or have limited functionality.

Cyrus Farivar at Ars Technica reported Saturday that both the Federal Trade Commission and the Library of Congress sites will be taken offline and replaced with splash pages. The Sunlight foundation says that this includes THOMAS, the official source of legislative information. That means there won't be an official online resource to track when or if Congress comes to a deal to start things back up.

A similar fate awaits NASA Web sites, according to the agency's shutdown plan, which notes that the public "will not have televised access to NASA operations and programming or access to the NASA Web site."

Even the sites that don't go down may not function at regular capacity. The Department of Veterans Affairs, for example, says the agency's home page will be "updated intermittently." The Federal Elections Commission site will remain online "but static."

A number of agencies' contingency plans made no mention of their online presences, including the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Justice. But last week, the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) provided some general guidance that seems to imply that many government Web sites will be down.

OPM advises that the “mere benefit of continued access by the public to information about the agency's activities” doesn't warrant the resources needed for non-essential Web sites  to stay up. It does say that if Web site maintenance is needed to avoid “significant damage” to an essential activity, it can remain up, like maintaining the IRS Web site so tax filings and collections can continue during a shut down. But even in that case, online services are to be maintained at the lowest possible level – so while the IRS Web site might stay up, the whole Treasury Department likely would not.

The memo also says that if a Web site is down, it should show a standard notice that it will be unavailable during the shutdown. If any part of an agency's site remains accessible, it should post a notice that it may be out of date and information or inquiries submitted through the site may not be processed until after the shutdown. The memo also says that non-excepted sites are to shut down even if the cost of shutting them down is higher than maintaining them.

As of press time, OPM did not respond to a Washington Post inquiry requesting a list of specific online federal resources that would remain available during a shutdown.

And as my colleagues Hayley Tsukayama and Brian Fung pointed out, it's not just public electronic communication that would be down. About half of federal employees who would be furloughed in the (increasingly likely) event of a government shutdown would not be allowed to check their e-mail during their out of office downtime.

Andrea Peterson covers technology policy for The Washington Post, with an emphasis on cybersecurity, consumer privacy, transparency, surveillance and open government.
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