Dot-Coms Nervous About FirstGov

WASHINGTON (08/11/2000) - The federal government wants to sign up e-business partners that can bring traffic to FirstGov.gov, the new governmentwide Internet portal. But questions about fees, liability and the quality of information are giving some Internet businesses pause.

Developers of the new portal say they want as many commercial World Wide Web sites as possible to provide access to FirstGov, which is being designed to make it easier for the public to find government information on the Internet.

The more partners FirstGov has, the better the access for the public, the portal's developers say.

But during a sales pitch for the new site Thursday, Internet companies, including America Online Inc., worried about plans to charge commercial outfits using FirstGov search capabilities.

Commercial partners are likely to be charged fees to cover at least part of the cost of operating FirstGov. After all, commercial Internet providers will be making money by including FirstGov among their services, said Bill Piatt, chief information officer of the General Services Administration, which is heavily involved in developing FirstGov.

Fees may be based on the number of subscribers an Internet service has. For AOL, with tens of millions of subscribers, that could mean fees of hundreds of thousands of dollars each month, said an official familiar with FirstGov.

Nonprofit organizations would not be charged, Piatt said, and there may be ways companies can "hot link" to FirstGov without having to pay. "Anybody can hot link to it. Osama bin Ladin can have a button to FirstGov.gov on his Web site if he wants to," Piatt said, referring to the Afghanistan-based anti-American terrorist.

Signing up partners is important to FirstGov because portal developers want to make government information as widely available as possible, Piatt said. The FirstGov Web site is scheduled to open in about two months and is intended to provide the public with an easy way to find all government Web sites - an estimated 20,000 of them - and all government Web pages - more than 100 million.

To be "certified partners," however, commercial Web sites would have to agree not to alter government information. AOL officials said they recently ran a government map showing gasoline prices by region. But instead of identifying regions with labels like "Midwest" or "Northeast," the map labeled regions with codes of numbers and letters that were meaningless to most viewers.

Would "certified partners" be allowed to change the maps so their subscribers could understand them? AOL representatives asked.

Probably not, Piatt said.

Web-based companies are also worried about whether they could he held liable for distributing classified information posted on an agency Web site. There was an audible sigh of relief when GSA officials said, "No, that's the agency's responsibility." To become certified partners, companies were told they would have to agree to the following terms: * Don't charge customers extra for access to FirstGov.

* Don't clutter FirstGov pages with "intrusive or overwhelming advertising." * Don't track users' click streams, search terms or the addresses of Web pages they visit.

* Provide agencies with any public feedback they receive.

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