Ethical Questions over Apps.gov

It’s been no secret since the Obama administration took office, that a key technological interest for the administrations tech policy would involve Cloud-based, Software as a Service (SaaS) initiatives. To that end, contractors and providers have been jockeying to provide cloud service to the federal government.

One of these contractors, notable for their size and breadth within the government I.T. contracting ecosystem, is Computer Sciences Corporation [CSC], who has partnered with Microsoft [MSFT] to provide a specialized product offering for the government.

Interestingly this week, the federal government jumped on the the “app store” movement, made sexy by Apple [AAPL] and expounded on by BlackBerry manufacturer Research in Motion [RIMM] and Palm [PALM] and now Google [GOOG] with their Android phones.

Incidentally, I’m including stock symbols for a reason. Follow the money and see where it goes. Thats your homework for the day, kids.

Screen shot 2009-09-17 at 1.52.02 PMThe new government offering, Apps.gov is a new “app store” for the federal government. Unlike other app store offerings that are geared toward mobile computing, this app store, an initiative of the GSA seeks to be a clearing house for cloud/SaaS services for the federal government. I’d be lying if I told you I thought this wouldn’t work in driving adoption by other federal agencies of these services.

The App store is divided into four sections: Business Apps, Cloud IT Services, Productivity Apps and Social Media Apps. Most of the applications found in Apps.gov are for-pay services and they are only available for purchase with a government purchasing card. These pay-services include a variety of products from Force.com, creator of the highly popular (if onerously annoying) Salesforce, and a variety of Google Apps products (all paid).

Interestingly, there are free products as well, and this is where I have ethics questions. Many of the products that are free, mostly in the Social Media section, are tools that are used everyday in social media, blogging, and web culture. Many of these apps we take for granted and talk about everyday. Applications like Slideshare and DISQUS have been used on this blog absolutely free of charge.

However, in the government, there always needs to be a tradeoff. You do something, you get something. Even Freedom of Information Act provisions make getting information a freely available right, but it doesn’t make it free. Most requests must be paid for.

Even when working with Lijit, I spent weeks and months trying to get one of the campaigns to adopt the product, but we couldn’t get it done as a free product without it being considered a campaign contribution. Granted, campaigns are not government, but you see where I’m going with this.

Daniel Ha, the CEO of DISQUS commented that they work with a variety of government agencies but that the GSA requires agreements to keep things official and on the up and up. This does not surprise me. It seems to be necessary. Ha did indicate that he was not aware of Apps.gov though, which seems to indicate that the app store was simply populated with providers who the GSA has a record of. It seems to me there’s some kind of missing piece here and I can’t put my finger on what it is.

When browsing around Apps.gov, it is not immediately known how providers get listed in the store. This is where my ethics questions come up. Companies listed in the store gain an implicit endorsement by the government, and probably immediate adoption in other agencies struggling to identify which services should be allowed and which services should not. This is not a transparent process of product selection or offering that I would have hoped for, though on the surface, it is certainly a good step in the right direction.

The major missing piece here is a transparent statement that informs the public on how apps are selected, if there is money changing hands (pay per play), how companies can get their own apps listed, etc.

This is the same problem Apple [AAPL] has had with the iTunes App store and arbitrary selection. It is such a problem that the Federal Trade Commission is looking into it. It also sets up a possibilty of an FTC investigation of the GSA for anti-competitive practice, though I’m not entirely sure if that is logistically or legally possible.

My point is that GSA is doing the right thing here, mostly. They just need to tweak and get rid of any shadow of wrongdoing or ethics questions.

Aaron Brazell

Aaron Brazell is a Baltimore, MD-based WordPress developer, a co-founder at WP Engine, WordPress core contributor and author. He wrote the book WordPress Bible and has been publishing on the web since 2000. You can follow him on Twitter, on his personal blog and view his photography at The Aperture Filter.

18 thoughts on “Ethical Questions over Apps.gov

  1. This is a key issue for apps.gov and similar gov efforts, certainly. Linked from the FAQ, I was able to find an explanation of how providers can get free products listed, and what the standards are (https://forum.webcontent.gov/?page=TOS_FAQs). It’s important information, and I guess with multiple agencies involved, there is going to be ongoing discussion of where and how to highlight such information.

    1. That link certainly explains how free products can be used within GSA. It doesn’t explain Apps.gov which, if DISQUS is to be believed, includes companies and products used elsewhere in the system and without agreement for Apps.gov. not that it’s bad for the companies listed. It’s not. But it creates an anti-competitive environment where the GSA implicitly endorses a product without transparency around how competitors can also be included.

      For instance, continuing with DISQUS, Automattic’s Intense Debate is also listed. But there is no listing for JS-KIT. How would the good folks at JS-KIT get included without knowing where to find obscure info on a different website altogether?

      1. This “endorsement” happens all the time, they’re called procurement contracts.
        There was a public request for information and a RFP as well that came from GSA.

        I can understand how some services may be too small to have successfully replied (or even known) but it’s hard to argue that GSA shouldn’t then be able to put contracts in place for any services, simply because not all participated in the open process.

  2. I’m sure like anything else there is plenty of behind the doors deals being made for specific apps to be put at the top or most popular list to be adopted earlier than others.

  3. Sorry for going off-topic, but what about the ethics of using the (presumably not public domain) image from the Apps.gov site in this post? This is an honest question, not an accusation, as I really don’t know. I’m one of a handful of people who doesn’t have a blog, so I have no frame of reference for what is fair use when it comes to imagery and graphics, etc.

    Rock on.

      1. As I said in my email to you, it’s not as cut-and-dried as you think it is. I won’t derail the conversation any more. Maybe a good topic or a future post, but I hear you don’t care about such topics, so maybe not. :)

        1. I don’t want to derail the conversation either, but Nicholas does have a point. I had to do a complete image research report for a client on how government agencies (specifically health agencies) use and can use images. It’s a bit more complicated than just a “blanket” free use of images–and more surprisingly, many government agencies don’t actually have specific image policies, which in an increasing 2.0, care and share world, is something that needs to be addressed.

          In terms of GSA, they already approved flickr. However, I’d like to see if a government-supported creative commons type of license will come out. Whitehouse.gov currently uses the creative commons license and a few others play by its rules, but agencies are yet to adopt it pending leadership from GSA. I hear it’s in the works though.

          1. I don’t want to derail the conversation either

            Then don’t derail the conversation. As far as I know, none of you are lawyers. I’m not going to have this conversation.

  4. Perhaps the GSA could state that the just because an application is listed is not an endorsement of its appropriateness for any particular application.

    Or maybe the GSA could establish user groups (using some of the listed tools, of course) to enable Federal users of the tools to discuss their experience with individual tools?

    I agree with you there are ethics and disclosure issues aplenty here and that this GSA effort could, if someone wanted to, evolve into a bureaucracy-ridden system that emphasized selection criteria, performance requirements, review boards, etc. etc. etc. – precisely the things that some in GSA would like to avoid.

    Dennis D. McDonald
    Alexandria Virginia
    web: http://www,ddmcd.com
    twitter: http://twitter.com/ddmcd

  5. If you read through the site, you can see that the free services (facebook, twitter, youtube, etc.) are on there because some of the terms were previously incompatible with Government strictures.

    “Purchasing” them via Apps.gov makes the Federal relationship explicit and helps agencies at their designated rep (which keeps multiple Departments within an Agency from maintaining their fragmentation).

        1. I understand that Twitter is a service. However, so is Facebook and other social media apps. Are you telling me that they are going to be installed directly within the GSA cloud yet Twitter will be outside the cloud? That is certainly news to me and not listed anywhere in apps.gov or in speeches given about apps.gov.

  6. Wow, that is crazy. I want to know which companies are going to get the deals, because this could send some stocks upwards because I am sure the government will pay a hefty price for whatever service they get. lol

  7. I know it’s fashionable to slate the AppStore approval process these days, and in most cases, Apple deserves it. Sometimes there is absolutely no rationale in blocking an app.

    I am very excited about the Apps.gov initiative but I think that unlike with the AppStore, the approval process must be transparent and open to public.

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