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What the Copyright Office / Internet Explorer rule tells us about government information

The proposal by the Copyright Office (Aug. 4 in the Federal Register) that would make it “necessary to use Microsoft’s Internet Explorer (IE) web browser in order to preregister a work” is more than just a bad policy. It is an excellent example of future problems of e-government implementation and the potential for problems with long term availability of government information through GPO.

A new article (Copyright Office draws heat for proposed IE-only rule By Joab Jackson, Government Computer News, 08/17/05.) quotes the Copyright Office’s reasons for the new rule:

The office says its browser choice is limited by the commercial software package it will be using to manage the registration system, as well as the time needed to test other browsers.

There was, and is, no intent to endorse a particular vendor. The office’s goal is to make the system available to everyone, and therefore to enable frequently used browsers,” said Marybeth Peters, the Register of Copyright.

The is an excellent example of a government agency making a technical decision based on economic constraints, time constraints, and the constraints and limitations imposed by the functionality of commercial software used to build and manage its web site. In this case, evidently, Copyright is using tools that build sites that work with IE only.

If we use the the Copyright Office example as a lesson and apply it to GPO’s plans for building its future digital system, we can come to two insights:

  1. Technical decisions are usually driven by non-technical requirements. No matter how much we may discuss what the “ideal” system might look like technically, in the end, it will look like what the government can afford. It will be built with software that is commercially available and such software was likely designed to accommodate the needs of for-profit companies wishing to control content and not designed for open government and ease of information sharing.
  2. To keep government information freely available we must focus on policy first and technology second. Even “good” technology decisions can be bad policy decisions.

By avoiding policy decisions and forging ahead with the technical matters of its Future Digital System, GPO is setting itself up to create a system that could be good technically while creating bad policies.

GPO should immediately affirm, in no uncertain terms and without equivocation, that it will guarantee that it will provide information products for free to the public and that those products will be fully-functional and not encumbered, disabled, controlled or otherwise non-optimal or locked-down versions.

CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.


  1. This is such a good piece of analysis I think you should crosspost some form of this to both the FDSys blog and the DLCVisioning blog.

    All citizens should be asking themselves why the government seems so unwilling to make clear policy commitments like the one Jim asks for above.

    “And besides all that, what we need is a decentralized, distributed system of depositing electronic files to local libraries willing to host them.” — Daniel Cornwall, tipping his hat to Cato the Elder for the original quote

  2. On August 22, 2005, Tim Berners-Lee and Daniel J. Weitzner of the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) hand-delivered these comments to the Office of the General Counsel, U.S. Copyright Office documenting their strong opposition to “the use of a single vendor’s World Wide Web browser” to create and submit online forms to the Copyright Office.

    In addition to the numerous practical impediments that the proposed vendor-specific, non-standard implementation will pose, we believe that the strategy of designing a government Web service around a specific piece of software as opposed to seeking conformance with existing and widely used voluntary industry standards is contrary to Federal information policy. Congressional enactments like the E-Government Act of 2002 clearly encourage “the use of the Internet and emerging technologies within and across Government agencies to provide citizen-centric Government information and services” [3]. In implementing the policies of the E-Gov Act, the Office of Management and Budget has stated that agency policy should seek to minimize “burden on business by re-using data previously collected or using XML or other open standards to receive transmissions” [4]. The recommended strategy is to “employ ‘smart’ buying practices to reduce acquisition and support costs, including software asset management; and increase the use of standards-compliant software” [4]. According to longstanding policy (see OMB Circular A-119 [5]), standards compliance entails using “voluntary consensus standards in lieu of government-unique standards except where inconsistent with law or otherwise impractical.” We can see no reason why a standards-compliant solution is impractical. If it is, there is nothing in the NPRM that explains why. Hence, we believe that the Copyright Office should reconsider its proposal to implement a single vendor solution and instead pursue a standards-based policy. This will ensure that all eligible beneficiaries will have access to Copyright Office services, and that the Office is compliant with Federal law and policy, and it is likely to save the Office money in the long run.

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