Archive for May, 2009

GSA social media TOS review

Friday, May 29th, 2009

Recently the GSA has been negotiating on behalf of federal agencies special Terms of Service agreements with various social media services like YouTube to allow agencies to make use of these services — some of those agreements are now publicly available. My understanding is that GSA’s negotiations were necessary before agencies could use these services because of legal issues like liability. I’ve reviewed the TOS’s to see whether they address open-government concerns.

The use of non-governmental services like these as part of a governmental function raises several openness issues, which we rehashed in an earlier thread on the use of YouTube by Congress. To summarize, the issues include:

  • whether the service provider meets government web standards including accessibility, privacy, security, nondiscrimination, and archival access to media
  • whether the service providers require members of the public to enter into a contractual agreement with them (i.e. more terms of service) in order to access government content, what the public must agree to, and whether these additional terms with the public restrict what the public can do with and how the public can share government media obtained through the service
  • whether use of the service constitutes an endorsement of a particular brand or technology, or if it provides a significant business advantage to a profit-seeking entity
  • whether the service provides government media in a data format that does not impose technical and legal restrictions on users of the media

I think I need to include a special note about privacy. We can expect that any non-governmental site is going to track their users’ behavior as best they can because of the financial incentives of user-targeted advertising and selling demographic data. I don’t know to what extent any of the services below make use of this, but I expect that this is a major component of the revenue of all of them.

The GSA TOS are amendments to the standard TOS employed by the services. I haven’t read through any of the standard TOS, so of course I might be missing something.

I reviewed the TOS’s with respect to these issues. They had common elements.

No Advertising: The service agrees to not place advertisements on pages with government content (i.e. government “channels” and the like). This addresses part of the concern of endorsement. Of course, services may continue to display their brand name and link users to other parts of the service, so they are still able to promote their business.

No Cookies: The service agrees to not set cookies when a widget is placed *in* a government agency webpage. This means that the service gives up its ability to do the most advanced user tracking in the cases where the user may be unaware that they are even accessing a non-governmental service. The service may still track accesses by IP address which still may provide a more rudimentary means to track users but is more likely to be anonymous.

Closed Captioning: The service will provide the ability for government media to include closed-captioning for videos using industry standard practices, which is of course important for accessibility.

The TOS are linked from here:

https://forum.webcontent.gov/Default.asp?page=TOS_agreements

Here are reviews of each TOS:

AddThis.com

AddThis.com provides a “Social Bookmark & Feed Button Builder”. It’s a widget developers can put on their websites to help users share content on other social sites like Facebook. Because of what AddThis does, there are only a few concerns to be addressed. The TOS addresses both main concerns:

- No Advertising — on government “channels” on the AddThis site
(doesn’t seem to actually apply to AddThis).
- No Cookies — when placed on .gov/.mil websites.

https://forum.webcontent.gov/resource/resmgr/terms_of_service_w_socmed/addthistos_4.30.09_final_uns.pdf

Blip.tv

Blip.tv is a video hosting website, like YouTube. All of the privacy concerns above are relevant. The TOS includes:

- No Cookies — Blip.tv will allow the government to disable parts of its embeddable player that sets cookies.
- Closed Captioning.

Other aspects require some elaboration:

Ads-

The GSA TOS has a confusing section on advertising:

“Blip.tv reserves the right to run advertisements on any page on Blip.tv, but will not run advertisements in-stream or directly adjacent to user videos without the opt-in of the user who uploaded the video.”

It sounds like Blip.tv can place ads on the page, just not directly adjacent to or inside of government media.

Privacy-

The GSA TOS say explicitly that Blip.tv does not collect personally identifiable information about users, but does collect and use demographic data for targeted advertising. Users should expect to be asked demographic data.

https://forum.webcontent.gov/resource/resmgr/Docs/Blip_tv_-_Terms_of_Use_Agree.doc

Blist.com

This is a “social data discovery” tool where users can upload tabular data sets to share. I am actually going to skip a review of this TOS because I expect (or sincerely hope) that tabular data sets are shared with the public directly (as a bulk data download) besides through social tools.

Facebook

Facebook is a social networking site.

The negotiated TOS are not available to the public. Given the likely pervasiveness of the use of all of these tools in the future, it would be a shame if the GSA is facilitating government agencies’ use of third party services that violate the public’s expectations for government web content.

Flickr

Flickr is a photo sharing website. All of the concerns listed above are relevant to Flickr. There are no provisions in the TOS relevant to this review.

https://forum.webcontent.gov/resource/resmgr/Docs/Flickr_TOS_Agreement_Amended.doc

MySpace

MySpace is a social networking site.

The negotiated TOS are not available to the public. Given the likely pervasiveness of the use of all of these tools in the future, it would be a shame if the GSA is facilitating government agencies’ use of third party services that violate the public’s expectations for government web content.

SlideShare

SlideShare is a document (i.e. presentations) sharing tool. The TOS are not posted on the GSA website, but this appears to be a publishing mistake as it notes that the TOS are intended to be publicly available.

Vimeo

Vimeo is a video sharing tool. The TOS has one relevant provision, despite all of the concerns being relevant.

- No Advertising — on government “channels” on the Vimeo site

https://forum.webcontent.gov/resource/resmgr/terms_of_service_w_socmed/vimeo_tos_final_april2009.doc

YouTube

YouTube is a video sharing site.

The negotiated TOS are not available to the public. Given the likely pervasiveness of the use of all of these tools in the future, it would be a shame if the GSA is facilitating government agencies’ use of third party services that violate the public’s expectations for government web content.

Conclusion

While I am encouraged by the GSA’s forward thinking to make use of the latest technologies developed in the private sector, I believe that working with the private sector poses a number of risks to government data, to the public’s privacy and free speech rights, and to good governance. These risks can be minimized and some useful provisions have been included in the negotiated TOS’s along these lines, but far more careful thinking is necessary.

While several of the TOS addressed accessibility and privacy concerns, none of the TOS addressed security, nondiscrimination, archival access to media, the TOS the public are required to enter into to access government content through these services, and web media data formats.

Update: See also this related post.

Open Data is Civic Capital: Best Practices for “Open Government Data”

Tuesday, May 19th, 2009

I frequently see questions like how can I convince my government that open data is important?, and what should I do as a government web manager to make data open?. These and other questions came up at Transparency Camp a few months ago, and at the end of the conference Gunnar Hellekson of Red Hat, and later I, decided to take on the project of bringing together a repository of best-practices guides for technology’s role in an open government. We have a wiki page for the project which lists some of the guides we’d like to see written.

Since the conference I’ve been working on the first guide, Open Data is Civic Capital: Best Practices for “Open Government Data”, which you can read by following the link. The goal was 1) to motivate why open government data isn’t just an ideological issue but actually makes society more powerful, and can really make the world a better place, and 2) to outline some suggested priorities and recommendations for open government data, drawing on the recommendations of a number of past groups (e.g. the 8 Principles of Open Government Data, and others). Thanks for feedback to Gunnar, John Wonderlich, Carl Malamud, Joe Germuska, Kevin Lyons, and David Robinson. (They had a lot of great suggestions many of which I haven’t had the energy to follow through with yet.) The essay begins:

“Creating a well-informed public is a core value of representative government. It is a prerequisite for ensuring the best representatives are elected and a crucial component of government oversight—as well as being important in areas well beyond civics. This document speaks to why public government data (also called ‘public sector information’) is a valuable resource to society if put on the Web and shared freely with the public, and discusses how to go about doing it. We discuss technological considerations and end with sixteen guiding principles for best practices in open government data.”

Kevin Lyons, who works for the Nebraska State Legislature, began work on a best practices guide for the use of the PDF format. When is it appropriate, what to look out for. That’s up on the wiki and I’m sure your suggestions & revisions would be welcome.

Senate votes now in XML (success story)

Tuesday, May 5th, 2009
I couldn’t have said it better:
JohnWonderlich: woot! Go Senate XML! (votes data now posted, in policy reversal) http://bit.ly/Il7hF
I’ve been nagging about this for a while. Big thumbs up to the Senate webmaster for a quick turnaround time too.