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Web 2.0 hearing overshadowed by politics; Simpson calls for Wi-Spy probe

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Fri, Jul 23, 2010 at 10:03 am

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Web 2.0 hearing overshadowed by politics;  Simpson calls for Wi-Spy probe

Consumer Watchdog’s John M. Simpson testified at a hearing yesterday on federal agency use of Web 2.0 technology, but the hearing got off to a rocky start when Ranking Member Patrick McHenry (R-NC) opted for a procedural gimmick and even introduced a motion to adjourn the hearing before the witnesses were able to testify.

The hearing comes in the shadow of repeated efforts by members of the Republican staff of the House Oversight and Government reform committee to arrange for Beth Simone Noveck, an official at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, to testify concerning allegations that White House staffers are using private e-mail accounts to communicate with industry lobbyists, a potential violation of the Presidential and Federal Records Acts. The allegations are compounded by reports by the New York Times that administration officials may be meeting with lobbyists away from the White House with increasing frequency to avoid disclosure on the White House’s visitor logs.

A previous hearing with Noveck was scheduled for last month, but then cancelled by the Democratic Majority. McHenry, unsuccessful at bringing in Noveck yesterday, sought to subpoena her to answer questions, but the motion was defeated 4-5 after Chairman Lacy Clay (D-MO) waited for more than half an hour for four other Democratic colleagues to show up to vote down the subpoena request. McHenry then proceeded to introduce a motion to adjourn the hearing, since he saw no purpose for it, but the motion was likewise defeated.

Despite the political distractions, Simpson was able to take the opportunity to pressure the committee, on record, to hold hearings investigating Google’s WiSpying activities and the serious privacy concerns its actions raise. Simpson also called for Congress to ensure that federal agency and political branch use does not inappropriately favor particular providers such as Google or Facebook, especially when such third-party commercial providers have obscure and unfavorable privacy policies, a concern that was echoed by Greg Wilshusen, director of information security issues at the GAO. “It also may not be clear as to whose privacy policy applies when a third party manages content on a government agency Web site,” Wilshusen wrote in his submitted testimony.

The panel, which included David Ferriero, Archivist of the U.S., and David McClure of the Office of Citizen Services and Innovative Technologies, unanimously asserted that the use of Web 2.0 technologies presented new challenges for government agencies that tried to balance the potential benefits of programs like IdeaScale with the inherent privacy and security risks these technologies carried. Simpson, whose written testimony can be found here, called on the committee to take steps to ensure the government performed proper due diligence when agreeing to use technologies that may end up violating the privacy of unknowing citizens.

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