FEMA Forces Explorer Use for Online Claims

The U.S. government is again excluding non-Microsoft Internet browsers, as Hurricane Katrina victims seeking to file claims with the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) may only do so with Internet Explorer 6.0 or above. Previously, the U.S. Copyright Office came under fire last month when it indicated a new copyright pre-registration system would only accept Explorer users.

Although evacuees, rescuers and others seeking to provide assistance in the aftermath of the devastating storm and flooding have relied heavily on computers and the Internet to search for loved ones and information, the exclusion of other Web browsers for FEMA claims — including Apple’s Safari, Mozilla Firefox and others — has again prompted criticism of the government and FEMA, which has already been blasted for its delayed response to the disaster.

Industry observers stressed that such sites should be built to World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) standards, which would provide functionality for those using other browsers. In addition, the use of Windows PCs and Explorer have also caused some consternation among relief workers who have reportedly complained of the time it takes to set up and secure a Windows machine versus other operating systems, which rely on other browsers.

Cut Off Again

Richard Stiennon, a Web browser expert and vice president of threat research for anti-spyware company Webroot, told TechNewsWorld that although Windows and Explorer are largely ubiquitous, the FEMA online claim requirement for Explorer excludes at least 5 to 10 percent of users.

While some have argued that computer access is not a significant issue given the scope of the hurricane disaster, Stiennon said the FEMA browser exclusion could severely impact victims of the disaster, who are turning to any and every technology resource possible to seek information and assistance.

Referring to hurricane victims who have access to BlackBerry or Palm Pilot handhelds, which use different browsers, Stiennon said the browser situation may prevent FEMA from providing relief.

“The government is supposed to serve the entire population, not just center on non-standard technology,” he said.

Misguided Management

Stiennon — who also observed that many of the IT professionals who have rushed into the relief effort carry Apple PowerBooks — said FEMA would actually have saved itself some work by building its site to standards.

“I think they’d be better served if they followed the W3C standards for Web servers,” he said. “You do not need to customize your Web site for Internet Explorer. It’s misguided for FEMA to cut off those other users.”

FEMA officials are reportedly working to support other Web browsers, and the Opera browser, which can appear as Explorer, was also functional for the online claims. The disaster relief agency was also accepting applications by telephone at 1-800-621-3362, but warned of congested phone lines.

Precluding Policy

Center for Democracy and Technology Associate Director Ari Schwartz told TechNewsWorld that government policy actually dictates use of open standards by government agencies. He said the exclusion of various browsers is indicative of a lack of oversight by the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), which should enforce the open standards policy more aggressively.

“The key is that they should write to the standard,” he said. “That’s what the government policy should be, and that’s what it is, actually.”

Schwartz said such browser exclusions with government sites is problematic because it favors certain vendors, and the government has its own responsibility to promote standards and avoid the appearance of favoritism, regardless of intentions.

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