Government should sell ad space on dot-gov websites, entrepreneur says

Critics argue third-party code would pose security concerns.

As the federal government examines ways to save money by simplifying the dot-gov domain, some companies and jurisdictions say it actually should be making money off its Web pages.

Federal guidance prohibits online commercial advertising on all dot-gov pages, even state and local websites. Because the General Services Administration operates the dot-gov domain, it gets to write the rules for executive branch, state, local and other dot-gov Web addresses.

Some cash-strapped jurisdictions have taken to running ads on government-funded dot-com websites to generate revenue, said entrepreneur Mark Lewyn, who penned an Aug. 5 Wall Street Journal opinion piece promoting the idea of placing ads on state and local sites.

Lewyn is urging federal officials to consider revising or repealing the ad ban as they continue with an initiative launched in June to consolidate some 20,000 federal dot-gov sites and improve the services they deliver. So far, the dot-gov reform effort has imposed a 90-day freeze on the creation of new federal sites and posted a list of all existing sites online for public scrutiny. Next, the plan calls for a task force to gather recommendations from agencies and the public on updating federal dot-gov policies.

"Effectively the dot-gov domain is owned by the federal government, but it's not just used by the federal government," said Lewyn, who owns a company that is in the business of directing Web traffic to ads.

He likens the concept of the government controlling the content of websites assigned by GSA to controlling the content of phone conversations on phone numbers assigned by the Federal Communications Commission. Lewyn said in a phone interview, "There's something somewhat troublesome when you have the federal government telling people what they can and can't do with these domains, just because of the fact that they own these domains. Just because they own the phone numbers, they can't tell us what to talk about on this call."

The Cook County, Ill., Assessor's Office in Chicago and some Washington state transportation department sites have sidestepped the advertising ban by moving their web pages to the dot-com realm.

Lewyn sees opportunities to experiment at the federal level, for example, with ads for TurboTax software on IRS.gov, or listings on SEC.gov for attorneys who practice in front of the Securities and Exchange Commission. He said he does not expect all agencies to allow ads. The Food and Drug Administration, for instance, should not be running ads for medications and supplements.

Lewyn suggests that the government require third-party companies to vet the promos so as not to show favoritism toward certain businesses -- and to ensure the digital ads adhere to federal security, privacy and other regulations.

"We're not advocating that basically all states and all counties are putting ads everywhere, in every corner of every dot-gov website," he said. "We think the rules should be eliminated so that choices can be made as to where to put advertisements."

Lewyn estimates the Internal Revenue Service could bring in between $50 million and $100 million a year through online advertising. He noted that IRS.gov already essentially plugs H&R Block and other tax software companies by directing visitors to FreeFile.org -- a public-private partnership that offers tax-filing software at no cost to low-income taxpayers if they visit the software vendor's commercial site.

But embedding outside computer code onto government websites raises privacy and security concerns.

It is possible that a third-party company could intentionally or inadvertently slip malicious code into an ad. Recently, hackers corrupted personal computers by creating sham advertising agencies that placed infected Internet ads on legitimate websites, including the Minneapolis Star Tribune's online newspaper.

And lawmakers and consumers already are up in arms about marketers that insert surveillance technology into ads to track potential customers as they surf the Web.

Lewyn acknowledged privacy worries, but said the government can reduce them by prohibiting third parties from allowing tracking technologies. As for security, he said, "There is no perfect system that will guarantee with 100 percent certainty" an attack will not occur, but filters can detect much of the malware.

Some computer security experts say that letting commercial ads into federal networks would exacerbate cybersecurity threats.

"You're incurring one more risk," said W. Hord Tipton, a former Interior Department chief information officer who now serves as executive director at the security training organization (ISC)2. "You're requiring one more task for your support people to assure that what gets into your advertisements is free of malware. Our most successful and largest companies in the world have not been able to assure that they can keep out that stuff."

Federal agency officials involved in the dot-gov reform effort declined to comment on the pros and cons of overturning the ad ban.

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