The federal government is on the verge of reaching an agreement with YouTube that would allow agencies to make official use of the popular video-sharing service.
A coalition of federal agencies led by the General Service Administration's Office of Citizen Services has been negotiating with Google, YouTube's parent company, since summer 2008 on new terms that would allow agencies to establish their own channels on the site.
Agencies have not been able to post videos to YouTube (although many already have) because, under the current terms of service, people who post content on the site are subject to their state libel laws. Federal agencies must adhere to federal law.
A larger obstacle has been YouTube's policy that videos are the responsibility of the person who posts the content. If federal agencies post a video on the site, the government considers it part of the public domain, and therefore does not consider itself to be liable for the content. For the federal channel, these clauses would be removed.
"I think that the previous rules of various kinds have restricted a lot of things that people want to do for using Web 2.0 technologies," said Mark Drapeau, a government consultant who writes about Government 2.0 for Mashable, a social media Web site. "Now post-election it's pretty clear those restrictive rules will loosen up and there will be more freedom to use these tools in government. It will behoove everyone to have a more cohesive strategy and more people from agencies involved in planning that strategy or carrying it out."
On Tuesday, government officials said the negotiations were "very close" to being completed. Google officials did not respond to a request for comment.
"It's groundbreaking, and we're very excited to be in negotiations," said Sheila Campbell, manager for government Web best practices and co-chairwoman of the Federal Web Managers Council in GSA's Office of Citizen Services. "We're really thrilled."
The agreement will allow government Web sites to reach a broader audience, according to Daniel Schaub, senior Web manager and acting director for digital communications at the State Department. "In addition to just pushing information out like we did during the Web 1.0 era, [social media] also allows direct engagement with the public," he said.
Schaub noted that Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton has supported the use of Web 2.0 technology.
Campbell said under the agreement, which federal agencies will be free to sign once it is completed, agencies will be able to set up their own partner channels on YouTube. They will have full control over the channels. She said the government is negotiating with other popular video-sharing and social media sites, including Vimeo, Blip.TV, Facebook, MySpace, Twitter and LinkedIn.
"It's important that other sites have the opportunity to post government content," Campbell said. "We're trying to cover the most popular social media sites, those used most by the public."
Campbell said she expects a flurry of activity on the social networking sites once the agreement has been signed.
Federal agencies are allowing limited use of YouTube, though the White House already has set up its own channel and has been posting videos of President Obama's weekly addresses.
Campbell said her group is negotiating to have the indemnification clause removed for federal agencies and to ensure that any legal challenges that result from posted content are handled in federal courts.
The government also is negotiating to remove ads from official agency channels and to gain control over the content that appears below the main video on a page to ensure nothing offensive or inappropriate is displayed.
"The popular videos concerned us, since we had no control over what they were," said Dick Stapleton, deputy director of the Web communications and new media division at the Health and Human Services Department. "Promoted videos had things like 'hot girls' that would offend some people. We got rid of that" during the negotiations.
The discussions are part of a broader push by the federal government to encourage agencies to embrace social media technologies. On Jan. 21 Obama issued a memo citing the Freedom of Information Act and agencies to use technology to inform citizens about their activities.
"The presumption of disclosure also means that agencies should take affirmative steps to make information public," the memo stated. "They should not wait for specific requests from the public. All agencies should use modern technology to inform citizens about what is known and done by their government. Disclosure should be timely."
The group leading the charge is the Web Content Managers Forum, a coalition of 1,500 federal, state and local government Web professionals nationwide. Campbell said the group started in 2001 as "a dozen folks in a conference room" but has grown to become a forum where officials can trade ideas, share best practices and explore solutions.
A smaller steering committee, dubbed the Federal Web Managers Council, was created by the 2002 E-Government Act and meets weekly. That group was first tasked with helping the Office of Management and Budget craft policies for federal sites in 2004 and includes the top Web director from every Cabinet department, as well as a number of individual agencies such as NASA and the Social Security Administration.
"These are folks living and breathing Web content," Campbell said. The group has spent much of its time recently discussing how to integrate the new administration's mandate to increase use of social media.
"It all comes down to what are those top tasks people are trying to accomplish when they come to government Web sites," she said. "It's making sure they can easily apply for a passport, apply for financial aid, file their taxes and find affordable homes in their community."
Drapeau agreed that agencies must focus on their mission first and deploy social media to help them reach their target audience.
"I think social media is an ecosystem, a toolbox. There's not one technology that's best for everybody," he said. "You have to figure out first what is the mission of your office or agency and use the tools that help accomplish that mission. I don't think that social tools change what the office is all about; what they do is empower you to do more than what you did before."