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Barring a miraculous show of statesmanship from either political party today, the Federal government will shutter its doors (well, some of them) starting at midnight, for the first time since 1995. And I wouldn’t hold your breath for a last-minute deal: Republicans and Democrats are still cooling their heels waiting for the other side to blink first in the political standoff over a temporary spending bill.
If Washington does switch off the lights tomorrow, several public government websites will go dark too, Ars Technica pointed out this weekend—a problem we didn’t have during the mid-90s shutdown, when the internet was just getting up and running.
So far the Library of Congress, NASA, the Federal Trade Commission, the National Parks Department, and the Securities and Exchange Commission, have confirmed their websites won't be accessible during a government shutdown. The Department of Veterans Affairs announced its site will be updated "intermittently."
The inactive sites will redirect to a landing page explaining the circumstances, according to a mandate by the Office of Management and Budget.
It seems a little extreme. I mean, how much can keeping a website online possibly cost? Are the minute savings worth denying the public access to information and resources in a time of heightened confusion? Probably not, but officials point out that it requires staff to make sure the content on sites is up to date and accurate, and those staffers will all be furloughed.
“Many of the services offered through our websites, such as reference services and cataloging queries, require staffing, Gayle Osterberg, director of communications for the Library of Congress told Ars. “Those activities and corresponding expenditures are not allowed in the event of a shutdown.”
Of course, not all government websites will be down for the count. The shutdown would exempt "essential" departments and agencies, like most of the Department of Defense (NSA included), and other programs that protect American lives.
Political pundits estimate that some 800,000 government workers will be furloughed, shuttering the National Parks Service, national museums, passport agencies, veterans benefits, school grant programs, the Centers for Disease Control, scientific research, and a host of other important, if not “essential” services.
Whether the websites for those programs will go dark isn’t yet clear. Federal agencies have some discretion as to whether or not to stay online. The White House explained in a memo sent out to agency heads last week:
Given that websites represent the front-end of numerous back-end processing systems, agencies must determine whether the entire website can be shut down or components of the website will be shut down.
The mere benefit of continued access by the public to information about the agency's activities would not warrant the retention of personnel or the obligation of funds to maintain (or update) the agency's website during such a lapse. However, if maintenance of the website is necessary to avoid significant damage to the execution of authorized or excepted activities.
For example, the memo points out, the IRS will still be collecting taxes throughout the shutdown, so will need its site working to process incoming returns.
Other programs may opt to pull the plug because without IT staff around to maintain security, the system would be extra vulnerable to a cyberattack. The federal technology website FCW reported that even though the DoD will be conducting business as usual to protect the US from a cyberattack, smaller agencies could be vulnerable to malware attack from savvy hackers that know the government is closed for business.