Addressing URLs

The feds are asking cities and counties to change their .gov ways, but its new rule is getting some kickback.
by | November 2003

Confusion over a federal ruling on Internet addresses for city and county governments has caused a tempest. Although the furor is dying down and misunderstandings are being corrected, grumbling among some city and county governments about the federal government's new rule on Web URLs continues.

A rule issued by the U.S. General Services Administration in March officially allows the ".gov" domain name--previously reserved for federal government entities but of interest to other levels of government--to be used by state and local governments. At least 45 cities and counties had already been granted a .gov name. There is, for instance, a maricopa.gov and a milwaukee.gov. However, the rule also establishes "conforming name protocols" that would require cities and counties in the future to include the two-letter state postal code to their addresses, since there could be 50 Springfields.

From the municipal point of view, the easiest Internet address to remember is short, simple and contains few extra dots, dashes or letters. New York City, for instance, can't get any more to the point than "nyc.gov". Seattle chose a simple "seattle.gov" and Miami-Dade County went with "miamidade.gov". Localities spend time and energy branding their names so they would become familiar to the public. "We spent three to four years promoting it," says Judy Zito, Miami-Dade's chief information officer. "It's plastered everywhere." URLs go on vehicles, billboards, business cards, publications, and other printed and electronic information.

Two months ago, however, word circulated that those "city.gov" addresses would be removed within 18 months and only conforming addresses would be allowed. Such action would make the old Web links go dead and mean that bookmarked addresses would no longer work without a lot of reconfiguring of computer systems. Expressions such as "fiasco" and "disaster" spread through conversations among local governments.

But the GSA says the buzz is off base. "While we would like more discipline in the names, we have no intention of revoking the names," says Mary Mitchell, deputy associate administrator for electronic government and technology. "We're not going to destroy them, just let them go dormant." She hopes that as jurisdictions order new business cards or vehicles, they will migrate to a conforming URL name that "would eliminate a lot of conflicts." But there is no set deadline. New York City, for instance, could have "nyc.gov" indefinitely. It's just that GSA would like localities that already have their own ".gov" names to establish a conforming name as well, so they can be found easily on the Internet. Both addresses would land users in the same place.

But GSA also hopes that over time, jurisdictions will "feel comfortable" using only the conforming names. Even so, Mitchell concedes that an URL like "nyc.gov" is "almost like a trademark." She says GSA is going to look at existing .gov URL's on a "one-on-one" basis.

That may be fine for those who already have the URLs and get to grandfather in their names, says Brian Anderson of Public Technology Inc. But others will be unable to get a "city.gov" address now without tacking on the state initials, except through appeal. Many have told Anderson of plans to use a ".org" designation, rather than ".gov" because they don't think the new conventions serve them well.

The federal government's preferred format for a city such as, say, Oshkosh, Wisconsin, would be Oshkosh-wi.gov. But using the words "city of" or "town of" are also options under the federal rules. So Oshkosh could choose to be cityofoshkosh-wi.gov or even oshkoshwi.gov. GSA also wants the words "county" or "parish" to be spelled out, as in Richmondcounty-ga.gov or countyofhenrico-va.gov.

The GSA says it is trying to eliminate confusion and conflicts by adding the state suffix and still allow jurisdictions some choices. "We don't want to be involved in constant arbitration," says Keith Thurston, an administrator with the GSA's Office of Electronic Government and Technology. "First-come, first-served presents very bad results." GSA is aiming for a "greater degree of normalcy" in the addresses so they are more predictable than random choice.

But it begs the question of whether the naming convention will help citizens, when there really isn't just one standard name but a choice of at least three.

Ellen Perlman
Ellen Perlman  |  Former columnist
mailbox@governing.com  | 

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