June 18, 2024


Digitally first class

Biden announces his boldest proposal yet: A functioning government website

That promise right there — an effective, government-run website that will address a key health-care need — is maybe the boldest of Biden’s presidency. The government’s track record on such endeavors, after all, is not fantastic.

But before getting into that, let’s take a step back and appreciate the history of the moment.

When Timothy Berners-Lee conceptualized links in 1989, about 40 percent of Americans who were alive in 2019 hadn’t yet been born. It took a few years to catch on, but by 1993 the New York Times was celebrating the new technology that emerged to exploit links, a “browser” called Mosaic.

“Before Mosaic, finding information on computer data bases scattered around the world required knowing — and accurately typing — arcane addresses and commands like ‘Telnet,’ ” reporter John Markoff wrote. “Mosaic lets computer users simply click a mouse on words or images on their computer screens to summon text, sound and images from many of the hundreds of data bases on the Internet that have been configured to work with Mosaic.”

What might they see? Why nothing less marvelous than “the card catalogues of the Library of Congress” or “Federal Government archives,” among other wonders. The government was dipping its toes into this new technology and would soon take the plunge.

On Nov. 2, 1994, a landmark New York Times headline read: “Socks Can’t Be Mistaken for a Dog Now.”

Socks was President Bill Clinton’s cat — who, the paper reported, had his “photograph and [his] voice encoded into the White House’s new data base on the World Wide Web, the fastest-growing publishing medium on the global Internet.”

“The White House opened its own Web server computer on Oct. 20,” the paper informed its readers, “and is already logging nearly 20,000 ‘hits,’ or requests for access, each day, making it one of the most popular sites on the Web.”

You’ll forgive me for quoting that at length. It’s just so funny to me, someone for whom the Web has been a central part of much of my life. It’s just this necessarily cumbersome language that now sounds like a robot trying to write a poem.

Despite the success with Socks, the government’s efforts to manage its online presence soon hit rocky shoals. Readers of a certain age will remember a period when typing “whitehouse” into a Web browser would append an automatic “.com” and take innocent Web users to a destination where no socks — or any other clothing — might be found. The domain is still not owned by the government, now offering people the opportunity to bet on politics instead of learn about it.

Back then, Biden was a senator from Delaware. In 2009, he became vice president and helped President Barack Obama pass the Affordable Care Act. On Oct. 1, 2013, the new health-care system’s website went live.

And then, just like that, it collapsed.

People looking to sign up for government-subsidized health-care policies overwhelmed a site that was perhaps built only to handle those 20,000 “hits” the White House site was seeing 19 years earlier. Obama and the Democrats were lucky that the site’s failure overlapped with a government shutdown spurred by efforts to block funding for the program, a shutdown that gobbled up much of the media’s attention. But “Obamacare website” nonetheless soon became shorthand for government technology failures specifically and government incompetence broadly. The kinks were resolved, but the reputation hit wasn’t.

Then along came President Donald Trump and the coronavirus pandemic. The government’s initial response to the crisis was again muddled, with limited testing capacity making it impossible to either measure the spread of the virus or even approximate containing it.

One year ago Saturday, though, Trump made a commitment to the public about another Web-based solution to the problem.

“Google is helping to develop a website,” Trump told the country. “It’s going to be very quickly done, unlike websites of the past” — a dig at the Obamacare website — “to determine whether a test is warranted and to facilitate testing at a nearby convenient location.”

Sounded cool. The only problem was that Google wasn’t building such a website. A subsidiary of Google’s parent company was.

Well, and that the website wasn’t intended to be a national tool for identifying testing locations, just for locations in the San Francisco Bay area. And that the site wasn’t going to be for the general public until Trump suddenly announced that it would be. And that there still weren’t many testing locations, not to mention tests sufficient for a national rollout.

Beyond that? An exciting announcement. As you may recall, though, no such national system ever emerged.

Which brings us back to Biden’s commitment. On Thursday night, he promised not only that every adult American would be able to sign up for a vaccine by May 1 but that there would be a comprehensive online tool for them to do so. And maybe there will be; Biden has already set a pattern of beating his own (often generous) benchmarks for action. Or maybe Biden will be the third president in a row to promise a website that addresses a critical health concern but who fails to do so.

It wouldn’t be surprising, of course. It is not trivial to open a Web server computer that provides access to a data base on the World Wide Web, the fastest-growing publishing medium on the global Internet.