Archive

Archive for March, 2011

The government needs a portal-of-portals portal

March 12, 2011 1 comment

Creation of new federal web sites under the Obama administration has reached warp speed. So much so that even the main federal portal, usa.gov, can’t keep up with them. For the most part, the new sites are of interest mainly to the hordes of interest groups that already keep tabs on this or that agency.

Two sites in the news recently got me to thinking. When it comes to one branch of federal online service, I would like to make the case for a single portal. If you go to USA.gov, within a couple of clicks you get to all of the consumer guides and protective links. There are 101 of them.

Last week, the Federal Trade Commission came out with its annual report on the complaints it received. Its collection site, Consumer Sentinel, logged more than 1.3 million complaints year about financial products and services.

Also last week, the Consumer Product Safety Commission proceeded with somewhat controversial plans for an online system for consumers to  send in complaints about products under the CPSC’s jurisdiction, Safer Products.org. Commission chairwoman Inez Tannenbaum told me and Amy on The Federal Drive that she has sufficient staff to filter out complaints that will inevitably come in that don’t come under CPSP. She said they’ll redirect those posts to the agencies that to have sway.

Not that the CPSC didn’t anticipate this problem. The drop-down menu of product categories ensures that people don’t report something wrong with, say, chicken. Another drop-down tells consumers what is outside CPSC, with links to those agencies.

The president and the Government Accountability Office have recently pointed out that the multiplicity of agencies each having something to say about food safety is another area ripe for reform and consolidation.

It all gave me an idea. How about one big site called “Tell The Government” or “Federal Complaint Central.” It would have these characteristics:

  • Simple online form with field for the product name, what it is generically, who the manufacturer is, name and type of store from which it was purchased, zip code, and a text field for the specific problem.
  • A software analysis engine that, knowing what agencies oversee what, and backed by a database of retailers and manufacturers, could quickly sort and forward to the appropriate agency. It would be able to spot and block instances of repeat complaints or postings with identical wording coming from various URLs.
  • The complaints would be forwarded to the manufacturer and retailer so they could investigate (as the CPSC does).

No longer would consumers have to wade through 101 or more web sites just to figure out where to complain. It would be up to each agency to decide how to handle the complaint according to its standard procedures.

I’m being tracked by the government!

March 2, 2011 Leave a comment

Well, not personally. But my home broadband connection is being monitored by the FCC. Not to worry, I volunteered for this.

Nearly a year ago I read an FCC press release about the agency wanting to monitor a sampling of broadband subscribers across the nation to get a detailed idea of how well service measured up to provider promises. On a lark, I signed up.

My house is like an archeological tel of internet access. The old dial-up line is still snaked along a baseboard to a socket near where one of the main computers sits. The original Dell 486 has been replaced by successive Macs, but old disks, even a floppy or two, still inhabit shelves. We’ve had two successive DSL providers over the years, before signing up last fall for Verizon FIOS.

Anyhow, months went by after I sent my information to the FCC. Then I was contacted by an outfit called SamKnows. That’s the FCC’s contractor for this project. (Isn’t that funny? Uncle Sam asking SamKnows for help.) They told me I’d made it through initial screening. Another information request, another couple of months, and now I was a finalist. I think there was another round of online information requested before the FCC informed me, via SamKnows, that I’d been chosen as a sampling site. Woooweee!

A month after that, a brand new NetGear 802.11n wireless router arrived via UPS. I didn’t quite get around to installing it immediately. But SamKnows kept noodging me with reminder e-mails. Last night I finally installed it.

SamKnows provided excellent instructions. It knew all about my Verizon-provided router. Unlike most commodity units, it has a coaxial cable input. So it was necessary to daisy chain the FCC-provided router to the Verizon router with a Cat-5 cable. The wired stage configured itself. But I had to log onto the Verizon router (SamKnows mysteriously knew its URL) to disable the wireless stage. All of the WiFi devices in the house — four notebook computers, two iPhones and an iPad — had to be remapped to the Netzero.

All in all, everything went perfectly. A couple of hours later, I received a confirmation email from SamKnows, reassuring me it had detected what they call the white-box router.

My wife wanted to know, what else is that thing monitoring? And how long would we have it sitting there on her desk?

I hope and presume SamKnows knows only my FIOS performance. Earlier communications from SamKnows had directed me to a broadband test site. That test indicated I am getting the upload and download speeds Verizon promises. Whether my (boring) web viewing habits or e-mails are being sniffed and sent to FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski, I have no idea. Nor do I know how long they’ll be watching.

It occurs to me that in my broadcast life on Federal News Radio in Washington, I am subject to monitoring by the FCC. So I’d say Genachowski owes me a beer.