State Sovereignty Doesn't Count for Much Online


Let me pose a hypothetical situation for you: Imagine some backwater town in your state. Now, imagine that some vandals move through town one night and plaster the local water board office with pornographic posters. The town fails to clean it up for a few weeks. Now, imagine that in response, the federal government mobilizes the Army and shuts down every government office in the state.

Never happen, right? Well, in a matter of speaking that's just what happened to California earlier this week. The story about GSA pulling down CA.gov makes me shake my head in amazement.

Some history: the .gov TLD is managed by the GSA on behalf of the US Federal government. It's only been 5 or 6 years that the feds have allowed states to use domains in the .gov TLD. In fact, there was some consternation over the whole thing. So, as the registrar, GSA can technically delist any domain in .gov. The question is, can they do so legally?

This quote from the InfoWorld story gets it all wrong:

State IT staffers were able to fix the problem within a few hours, narrowly averting disaster, but the situation shed light on what observers are calling a shocking weakness in the state's IT infrastructure.

Now, indeed, it's probably true that parts of California's IT infrastructure are less than secure. That's what happens when you have hundreds of agencies all going their own way and an assembly that's unwilling to put them under the jurisdiction of a strong CIO. But that's not the story here.

The story is this: US states are sovereign. That is, within the federal structure, they operate independently and are self-governing. States are granted significant rights by the Constitution. Heck, they have the right to raise armies! Because of the Constitution they exist independent of the power of Congress. Contrast this to the way most cities and town operate: they are wholly creatures of the state legislature and 100% subject to it's whims.

So, to my mind, the fact that some faceless bureaucrat in DC is making the decision, with no legal basis other than the technical power to control the switch, to shut down California's online presence is shocking. Besides the point that the response was wholly out of proportion to the problem, any action whatsoever on the part of the Feds beyond a friendly "head's-up; you've got a problem" phone call was beyond their authority.