State Government Branches Battle Over Blocked Internet Sites
Power struggles between the legislative and executive branches aren’t anything new. But one brewing in Montpelier these days is unique: The administration’s decision to block Internet entertainment sites has spawned a battle between top lawmakers and executive-branch techies.
A few months ago, lawmakers began noticing something odd about their Internet browsers. Pandora, for instance, once a source of diverse musical offerings, now produced a mostly blank white page with the message “server not found.”
Efforts to access entertainment sites such as Hulu, Spotify, slacker.com and four other sites were similarly futile.
The problem however wasn’t the servers; rather, someone had blocked the sites intentionally.
“We constantly monitor our bandwidth, as far as how much bandwidth we have, whether or not we’re seeing delays on bandwidth for our Internet connection,” says Richard Boes, commissioner of the Department of Information and Innovation. “And if we are, then we look to investigate why we’re seeing bandwidth that’s unusual. And we try to take action to solve any of those issues that come up.”
"We look to investigate why we're seeing bandwidth that's unusual. And we try to take action to solve any of those issues that come up." - Richard Boes, commissioner Department of Information and Innovation
Boes is the man who made the call to scrap lawmakers’ access to the sites. He says he wasn’t picking on legislators specifically – no one on the state Internet system can access those sites anymore.
Entertainment sites had been consuming more than 7 percent of the state’s data transfer capacity, according to Boes. He says blocking the sites made more sense than spending precious dollars on bandwidth that already costs the state about $1.6 million annually.
“When we got to a point where bandwidth was negatively affecting state applications, in that they were slowing down services to Vermonters, then we look to say, ‘OK, do we have to spend more? Or do we take some other action?’” Boes says.
The move has not gone over well with lawmakers. Senate President John Campbell says the move breaches the independence of the legislative branch.
“I don’t have a lot of confidence in them,” Campbell says of leadership at Boes’ department. “And what is really deeply concerning is that they would think that they have the right to unilaterally make a decision affecting the Legislature.”
Campbell, House Speaker Shap Smith and the chairman and vice-chairman of the Legislative IT Committee penned a letter to Boes in mid-March demanding he immediately reverse the decision. Boes has yet to comply. In fact, the movie and television streaming site Netflix has since been added to list of forbidden sites.
Smith says he shares Campbell’s concern.
“There’s an ongoing dispute between DII and the Legislature that DII is trying to exercise control over another branch of government, and that’s of real concern,” Smith says.
Campbell says he does not condones idle web surfing.
"There's an ongoing dispute between DII and the Legislature that DII is trying to exercise control over another branch of government, and that's of real concern." - House Speaker Shap Smith
“I don’t think that legislators should be watching movies when they’re up here, or listening to music,” Campbell says. “We have jobs to do.”
But Campbell says it isn’t the administration’s job to police them.
“For them to think they … should not be challenged that whatever their rule is … it’s quite dictatorial,” Campbell says.
Boes says the installation of new firewalls over the next few months will allow for more targeted Internet blocking protocols. Until then he says, as goes state government, so goes the Legislature.
“We do not have an ability to block something for the Legislature and nobody else. So we block on our Internet connection, which is shared by the entire state,” Boes says.
That answer doesn’t satisfy Campbell. This incident isn’t the first time that Boes’ decision to block Internet sites has had the effect of limiting lawmakers’ abilities to freely access the web. But Campbell says it may be the last. If Boes doesn’t relent this time, then Campbell says lawmakers may have to familiarize the commissioner with their own brand of power.
“We may just end up taking care of it from a budgetary stand point … i.e. that we control DII’s budget,” Campbell says.
Campbell says he expects to meet with Boes this week.
The full list of Internet sites that have blocked on the state government system: