Here's Why the First Shutdown of the Internet Era Was Different

During the last shutdown, Americans spent only 30 minutes per month online.

A government shutdown is rare enough that, when it does happen, both politicians and citizens have to learn how it works. Who gets furloughed? What services are considered essential? The most recent shutdown was the first to occur in the Internet era, which means the digital services most Americans are used to were temporarily suspended.

Before October's shutdown, the last shutdown — which lasted from Dec. 16, 1995 to Jan. 6, 1996 — Google was more than two years away from being founded, Mark Zuckerberg was 11 years old, and the average American spent 30 minutes online each month (they were probably waiting for the next AOL disc to show up in the mail). Today, the National Zoo has a Panda Cam and the Interior Department has 155,000 followers on Instagram. It’s a different time, and the way citizens interact with the government has changed dramatically.

Here are a few high-tech government services that went dark during the shutdown:

Digital Services, Public Information Aren’t Considered Essential

Government Shutdown

Most dot-gov websites aren’t considered essential, so they were either static or entirely unavailable. Interestingly, agencies were not forced to close down their sites, according to NPR:

Technically speaking, a site can stay up because servers are paid for ahead of time. And for most of these sites, a human doesn't have to be working with them to allow them to keep running.

NPR also cited a memo from the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), which indicated that access to information online costs money, so websites had to be suspended:

The mere benefit of continued access by the public to information about the agency's activities would not warrant the retention of personnel or the obligation of funds to maintain (or update) the agency's website during such a lapse.

Another OMB memo made it clear that agencies were to stop maintaining websites, even if keeping them running would be less expensive than shutting them down.

For web nerds like me, Search Engine Land wrote a great piece on the SEO impact of the shutdown on government websites.

Deployed Troops Missed NFL Action

Did you know that a division of the Defense Department exists to broadcast radio and television to deployed troops? Not surprisingly, the American Forces Network is not considered an essential service and limited their broadcasts to news until the government resumed operations. During the shutdown, sailors on board 225 ships and military families stationed at bases around the world were left without Major League Baseball playoffs and the NFL.

Space Exploration Was Largely Unaffected

The Mars Curiosity still explored Mars and collected data, according to the International Business Times. NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) is staffed mostly by contractors and was able to continue their work with a smaller staff.

The next space initiative, however, nearly faced a serious problem, reports Space.com:

The U.S. government shutdown could delay the planned November launch of NASA's next mission to Mars — perhaps pushing the flight all the way to 2016, scientists say.

The shutdown has frozen launch preparations for the Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution spacecraft, known as Maven, which is slated to blast off Nov. 18 from Florida's Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. Maven has until Dec. 7 to get off the ground, after which point it would have to wait 26 months for another favorable alignment of Earth and Mars.

Thousands of IT Workers Felt the Pinch

Shawn McCarthy, IDC’s government insights research director, wrote an informative piece about the impact on contractors. He explains that while a short shutdown wouldn’t have a noticeable impact, each passing day presents more risks to IT systems and the people who maintain them:

At most federal agencies, the shutdown will not have an immediate impact on most IT operations. But that impact could change if the shutdown lingers. Most IT contractors will not see an urgent issue, since many receive monthly, quarterly or annual payments for the IT services they provide. But if the shutdown drags on, defense contractors, especially IT systems integrators, could feel the pinch. Many receive a high percentage of their business from the federal contracts.

While we have not yet seen a broad reduction in IT operations, government staffers who maintain non-essential systems often will not be present to keep the systems running. In some cases, systems remain operational, but they will be shut down if problems are detected.

How was your agency affected? Let us know in the Comments.

<p>Flickr/mgrhode1</p>
Oct 07 2013