Change.gov and The Domain Naming Process

Over at Michelle Malkin’s blog, you can read the result of a Freedom of Information (FoI) request to the General Services Administration, which manages .gov domains, on the process followed to approve “change.gov” as a domain name.

What qualifies for a .gov domain?

  • U.S. Governmental departments, programs, and agencies on the federal level
  • Federally recognized Indian Tribes (-NSN.gov domain)
  • State governmental entities/programs
  • Cities and townships represented by an elected body of officials
  • Counties and parishes represented by an elected body of officials
  • U.S. territories

Rule Restrictions
Sites with .gov domains cannot contain any political or campaign information. Here is the GSA eligibility statement:

The Gov domain is for the operation of government, not the political, political party, or campaign environment. No campaigning can be done using Gov Internet domains. The Gov Internet domain websites may not be directly linked to or refer to websites created or operated by a campaign or any campaign entity or committee. No political sites or party names or acronyms can be used. Separate webites and e-mail on other top-level domains (TLDs), such as .org, will have to be used for political activity.

The naming conventions are clear that “general terms” are “not allowed because they do not represent a specific enough origin and service.” The examples given are “licenses,” “recreation,” and “benefits.” Critics argue that “change” is in this same category.

Change.gov Process
The initial rejection of change.gov (21 October 2008) was based in part because it was deemed “too generic” and in part because it “would be political — the slogan for one candidate’s presidential campaign.” Other examples of rejected generic domain names cited include contracts.gov, hydrogen.gov, innovation.gov, manager.gov, relocate.gov, water.gov and women.gov.

From GSA:

The gov domain policy requires that canonical domain names be easily reconciled with the expected content of a domain. Category or general terms that are more generic than the program coverage are not in compliance with the naming policy.

On 4 November (election day), Obama’s transition director asked for a waiver, writing that “a clear message of CHANGE is required to effect a successful presidential transition and that establishing the http://www.change.gov domain is a critical component of this message.”

On 5 November, GSA Chief Information Officer Casey Coleman reversed the ruling, writing that “it is in the best interest of the Federal Government to register the subject domain name,” according to the info on Malkin’s site.

The GSA is charged by Congress with providing the President-elect and the Vice-President-elect the services and facilities needed to assume their official duties.

Meeting Accessibility Rules
All federal “agency” websites are required to meet Section 508 accessibility guidelines. When tested with CynthiaSays, the Change.gov home page fails to meet the requirement to use ALT tags on images. It did, however, provide a link to required plugins.

FWIW, the page doesn’t validate as XHTML 1.0 Transitional. Neither does an interior page.

Final Thoughts
I’m not a big fan of “letter of the law” decisions – my personality type sees life as a little more gray than that. It seems clear to me that the regulations were stretched to accommodate change.gov as a domain name, for the reasons stated in the rejection letter.

However it is also clear to me that some rules effect boundaries that should be both solid and transparent. One of those is the separation of electioneering (campaigning) and governance. There’s a reason for “franking” rules — the power of the incumbency is real without adding to it the use of taxpayer funded communication as a sly form of campaigning.

And it’s this blurring of the border between governance and electioneering that troubled me initially, and still does. Recall that the initial launch of Change.gov was almost a complete
copy&paste of the Obama campaign website — campaign content
shoehorned into a new container (design). It then went silent, without
explanation, then returned, also without explanation.

I’m a little surprised that there was as little push-back as there was from those on the right. But I’m not surprised that someone whose career path implies she’s a technology optimist would override the rejection.

Advertisements

4 thoughts on “Change.gov and The Domain Naming Process

  1. Unfortunately, WordPress decided not to escape the reserved characters in my HTML element examples like I expected, and threw them away instead…

  2. dw:
    > You don’t have to have ALT text for EVERY image, although in the case they appear to be using, it probably should have it.

    You don’t need to have a non-null value for the “alt” attribute of every element, but you DO need to have an “alt” attribute for every element. If the element has no informational meaning, then the correct value is “”. ex. . Not having the “alt” attribute will cause validation to fail. I had checked change.gov for accessibility shortly after it launched, and saw this error repeated a number of times.

    Out of perverse curiosity, I just went through the homepage and identified the validation errors. If these few are fixed, it will validate as XHTML transitional. I think it would then pass any accessibility audit, even one conducted by a human and not by Cynthia Says.

    No CDATA wrapper for script content, so reserved characters fail validation (you found this)
    Uses the ID value “moduleOpenGovernment” twice — must be unique
    One unclosed element
    Unquoted attribute values on one element that uses image map (you found this)
    Missing “alt” attribute on one element that uses image map

    The problems are probably the result of output from Fireworks or something. Just judging from the homepage, the site has been significantly cleaned up since its initial launch.

    All that said, change.gov is much, much better in these regards than many sites I’ve been responsible for. But then it has to be — digital media cuts both ways and no president has going to be as closely scrutinized as Obama will be.

  3. Just for the record:

    1. Getting a site to validate with Cynthia Says does not really give you accessibility compliance. It just says you validated with Cynthia Says. The unfortunate truth of accessibility is that much of this stuff requires qualitative, not quantitative, assessment.

    2. You don’t have to have ALT text for EVERY image, although in the case they appear to be using, it probably should have it.

    3. Change.gov is failing XHTML 1.0 compliance because of the img tag without quotes around its attributes and because their jQuery script is using a less-than symbol that’s not escaped. On the former, looks like a new coder who doesn’t know what he/she is doing. On the latter, they really should move the jQuery into a separate, cached JavaScript file. It’ll fractionally help download times, too.

    4. Honestly, the Obama stuff has been remarkably better in terms of accessibility than McCain’s mess was. And they’ve been responsive — after the web community dogged them for not captioning Obama’s first weekly address on YouTube, they started capitoning them… starting with week two.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s