Page last updated at 11:45 GMT, Thursday, 22 January 2009

White House plans open government

Screengrab of Whitehouse.gov website
The Whitehouse.gov website now has far fewer restrictions on what is indexed

Searching for data about the Obama administration should get easier as the Whitehouse.gov website gets overhauled.

Barack Obama's new media team is letting search engines index almost everything on the site.

By contrast, after eight years of government the Bush administration was stopping huge swathes of data from being searchable.

The move is part of President Obama's larger push to make the US government more open and transparent.

Open rule

Many websites limit what search engines can index by use of what is known as a robots.txt file.

The robots.txt file the Bush administration set up for Whitehouse.gov ran to almost 2377 lines and limited the way search engines could log the data found on the site.

On the first day of the Obama administration the robots.txt file shrunk to two lines allowing, for the moment, search sites to index everything it contains.

The new media team also created a Whitehouse.gov blog that will act as an informal record of events, speeches and decisions.

Excerpt from old robots.txt file
After eight years the Bush administration had lots of exclusions

Introducing the blog, Macon Philips, director of New Media at the White House, said it was intended to let the president and his staff "connect with the rest of the nation and the world".

On the first day, Mr Obama issued two memos spelling out his views on more transparent government and a wish to see a greater commitment to freedom of information.

In one memo he spelled out his desire for an "an unprecedented level of openness in Government". The other said government bodies should err on the side of clarity when considering if information should be disclosed. "In the face of doubt, openness prevails," he wrote.

He added: "The presumption of disclosure also means that agencies should take affirmative steps to make information public."

Mr Obama called on government agencies to use new technology to explain their decisions and keep citizens informed.

He gave whomever is picked as US Chief Technology Officer 120 days to work on an Open Government Directive that official agencies can follow.

The moves were welcomed by the Electronic Frontier Foundation, which said the memoranda stood in stark contrast to a memo issued by John Ashcroft soon after 9/11. This called on government bodies to only release information after exhausting all strategies, including legal action, to withhold it.

While Mr Obama's memoranda do not explicitly overturn this policy, the EFF said: "This is a big step in the right direction."

But, said veteran e-democracy activist Steven Clift, time will tell whether the pledge led to any meaningful change in the way federal offices operate.

In a review of the early decisions, he wrote: "Words on paper mean little compared to moving the culture of government toward openness."

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