The pitfalls of Web2.0 for government Officials

25. November 2008 – 11:14 by Bengt Feil

As politically interested citizens and active members of the online community I assume we all would like to see our politicians to use as many of the great online communication tools as possible. There is no doubt that Facebook, Twitter, Youtube etc. can be great to reach out to certain sets of constituencies and potential voters, collect donations or to raise transparency of government and party work. The Obama Presidential Campaign and the work done with right now further support this assessment. But the Web2.0 has its pitfalls; especially for those holding a government office.

Politicians, as government officials, have to closely follow the legal and organisational rules governing the position they hold. This means that not every tool they choose to communicate with citizens may fit the purpose of their office or even be completely legal. An example for this would be the plan of Barrack Obama to keep posting his weekly radio address to the nation to and to embed that video on the or other government website. This idea and the first try of it were warmly welcomed by the internet community and I fully agree to that excitement. But there are several problems which have to be taken into account:

1. Youtube (e.g. Google) places a cookie (a small file identifying a computer to the Server, in this case Youtube) on every computer visiting the site in which the video is embedded even if the user does not click the start button. This poses a privacy risk as a commercially oriented company gather information about citizens visiting a government related website.

2. Federal websites in the US are bound by law not to use persistent cookies (cookies which do not expire) to protect their users privacy. Youtube however uses persistent cookies. As embedded flash players and other forms of code of third parties on government websites gets more prolific this law may also apply to these embedded solutions. It can be assumed that the US is not the only country having a regulation concerning the use of cookies of official websites.

3. By choosing the Youtube as the embedded player on the Obama transition team send a large amount of traffic to a specific company website. Having Eric Schmidt of Google as a campaign adviser may have been a factor in choosing the Youtube service but I assume that its mainstream role among the video portals was of greater influence.

This example shows that while Web2.0 communication tools have to be integrated into process of political communication there will be problems and hurdles to be dealt with. Legal frameworks are slow in adapting to the rapidly developing circumstances of the digital age which lead to situations which are not clear cut. Hopefully these problems will slow down the development and adaption of new ways of political communication.

Here are two small examples to emphasise the conflict between legal frameworks and the reality of communication today: George Bush never used eMail as a tool and Barack Obama may be forced to also give up his Blackberry because every eMail conversation done by the President of United States is part of the public record. It is true that this arrangement leads to a high level of transparency but it also stopped a Head of State from using a very efficient tool of communication.

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