The Government Can't Even Figure Out How To Shut Down Its Websites In A Reasonable Way

from the government-shutdown-oddities dept

With the government shutdown, you have may have come across a variety of oddities involving various government agency websites that were completely taken offline. This seems strange. Yes, the government is shut down, but does that really mean they need to turn off their web servers as well, even the purely informational ones? I could see them just leaving them static without updating them, but to completely block them just seems… odd. Even odder is that not all websites are down and some, such as the FTC’s website appears to be fully up, including fully loading a page… only to then redirect you to a page that says it’s down. Julian Sanchez, over at Cato, explores the various oddities of government domains that are either up or down — or something in between.

For agencies that directly run their own Web sites on in-house servers, shutting down might make sense if the agency’s “essential” and “inessential” systems are suitably segregated. Running the site in those cases eats up electricity and bandwidth that the agency is paying for, not to mention the IT and security personnel who need to monitor the site for attacks and other problems. Fair enough in those cases. But those functions are, at least in the private sector, often outsourced and paid for up front: if you’ve contracted with an outside firm to host your site, shutting it down for a few days or weeks may not save any money at all. And that might indeed explain why some goverment sites remain operational, even though they don’t exactly seem “essential,” while others have been pulled down.

That doesn’t seem to account for some of the weird patterns we see, however. The main page at redirects to a page saying the site is unavailable, but lots of subdomains that, however cool, seem “inessential” remain up and running: the “Solar System Exploration” page at; the Climate Kids website at; and the large photo archive at, to name a few. There are any number of good reasons some of those subdomains might be hosted separately, and therefore unaffected by the shutdown—but it seems odd they can keep all of these running without additional expenditures, yet aren’t able to redirect to a co-located mirror of the landing page. 

He also takes on the issue of the FTC redirect, in which he notes that the redirect after loading the full page shows that they’re not saving any money at all this way, meaning it makes absolutely no sense at all.

Still weirder is the status of the Federal Trade Commission’s site. Browse to any of their pages and you’ll see, for a split second, the full content of the page you want—only to be redirected to a shutdown notice page also hosted at But that means… their servers are still up and running and actually serving all the same content. In fact they’re serving more content: first the real page, then the shutdown notice page. If you’re using Firefox or Chrome and don’t mind browsing in HTML-cluttered text, you can even use this link to navigate to the FTC site map and navigate from page to page in source-code view without triggering the redirect. Again, it’s entirely possible I’m missing something, but if the full site is actually still running, it’s hard to see how a redirect after the real page is served could be avoiding any expenditures.

Sanchez tries to piece together why this might be happening, and points to a White House memo which explicitly says that agencies should shut stuff down even if it’s cheaper to keep them online:

The determination of which services continue during an appropriations lapse is not affected by whether the costs of shutdown exceed the costs of maintaining services…

It’s difficult to see how this helps anyone at all. But it does yet a good job (yet again) of demonstrating that logic and bureaucracy don’t often go well together.

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Comments on “The Government Can't Even Figure Out How To Shut Down Its Websites In A Reasonable Way”

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Ninja (profile) says:

I’m guessing it’s aimed at mounting pressure for the approval of the budget. Still it is odd, I’ve read that even if they re-open today the ceiling of the debt will be reached a few days later on 17th. This is clearly not sustainable. However there are a few billion dollars that can be cut from the expenses by rolling back a few military efforts (ie: useless wars), surveillance efforts and other stuff that a whole lot criticize the Govt for. I do think that the budget will end being approved and the ceiling raised with few meaningless cuts though. While the US Govt keeps sliding down fast while taking no real steps ahead.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

“”I’m guessing it’s aimed at mounting pressure for the approval of the budget“”

Similar thought, though I suspect it’s not the budget specifically or that it’s solely aimed at mounting pressure to achieve an end goal.

It’s a protest like the SOPA blackouts. Can’t blame them either. A few politicians stopped the majority of public services because they got away with conning the public into thinking “Obama Care” is socialist etc… The same conned people who like “The affordable Care Act” and it’s contents as a big improvement of the healthcare/insurance system as is.

It’s messed up. A government imposed strike that doesn’t benefit or aim to benefit the public or the workers being forced to strike. The only thing the workers can do is to make sure that people recognize what those idiot politicians have done. Hence pulling the websites is a must, just to show people.

I don’t think it’s strange at all…. it’s a calculated decision with a point.

Anonymous Coward says:

perhaps getting the correct amount of tax from the entertainment industries and Hollywood, instead of letting a few people get extremely rich by paying out far less than they should, in all directions and the continuous giving of concessions and grants to aid a ‘dying industry’ that is further from death than at any other time since it’s copyright infringing inception, would help a bit?

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: If you're using Firefox or Chrome and don't mind browsing in HTML-cluttered text, you can even use this link to navigate to the FTC site map and navigate from page to page in source-code view without triggering the redirect.

FTC did the would-be-shutdown using a standard meta refresh:
meta http-equiv=”refresh” content=”0;URL=/shutdown.shtml

to avoid the redirect, in firefox:

1) open the advanced configuration interface by entering about:config in the address bar.

2) type “accessibility.blockautorefresh” (without quotes) in the Filter field below the address bar and set this preference to true
(right-click -> Toggle) now works normally without the pesky redirect.

3) remember to set it back to false if you want auto-refresh on other pages.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: If you're using Firefox or Chrome and don't mind browsing in HTML-cluttered text, you can even use this link to navigate to the FTC site map and navigate from page to page in source-code view without triggering the redirect.


Notice the “accesibility.” in the name of the preference. This means it is an ACCESSIBILITY feature. Calling its use “hacking” would be a stretch.

boomslang says:

Non-conspiratory reason

I’m sure there’s some political reason behind the website shutdowns, since there’s always a political reason behind everything in Washington. But, there are also legitimate reasons to take down certain gov’t websites.

If gov’t website maintainers are furloughed, then there’s no one around to deal with security breaches, website defacements, etc. NASA, for example, doesn’t have the best record when it comes to being hacked. My guess is that it’s easier to shut down the server than to risk having a defaced website for as long as this gov’t shutdown lasts.

PaulT (profile) says:

Re: Non-conspiratory reason

“Non-conspiratory reason”

I’m not seeing any kind of conspiracy being suggested, just a note of bureaucracy and/or incompetence making even a shut down of services inefficient, illogical and inconsistent.

“NASA, for example, doesn’t have the best record when it comes to being hacked.”

Not necessarily their fault when the hackers are attacking them by mistake.

peter says:

Sorry but a little correction

“demonstrating that logic and bureaucracy don’t often go well together”
Should more accurately read,
“demonstrating that logic and politics don’t often go well together”
cos it is obvious that the reason behind these shutdowns is politics with various agendas thrown in….and is nothing to do with finance or logic.

Anonymous Coward says:


Completely disagree on your conclusion Mike

“It’s difficult to see how this helps anyone at all. But it does yet a good job (yet again) of demonstrating that logic and bureaucracy don’t often go well together.”

It helps their cause by informing the public of the consequences brought about by the retarded actions of a minority of Republican politicians.
They didn’t like “Obama Care” which is now a law.
The law was passed by the democratic system.
They conned people who like “the affordable Care Act” into hating “Obama Care”.
They “shut down the government” because they want to negotiate the law which already passed.

Without funding the sites/services wouldn’t exist at all. It has a point.

A lot of people wouldn’t notice if NASA shut down because the only connection they have to NASA is the NASA website. The site has to shut down. If only for the NASA employees to make a point of their funding being withdrawn.

vastrightwing (profile) says:


The example I read this morning told where the Lincoln Memorial was “shut down” by barricading the monument! I guess when the government “shuts down” they don’t just stay home but make sure to impose the most obnoxious inconvenience as humanly possible to its citizens.

This isn’t about saving money, it’s giving us all the middle finger of indignation and they’ll spare no expense doing it either!

JoJo says:

Web shutdown

This is obviously an effort by the White House to make the shutdown more painful than it needs to be to coerce citizens into thinking that the Republican stance of “enough is enough” is hurting more than it is doing good. This shutdown is hurting a lot of people in a lot of ways without the White House forcing to be worse than is has to be.

My brother is an analyst with the government, he is out of a job. My parents were vacationing out West, they are from the East, in National Parks because that is what they can afford, they have been kicked out of their campsite and must find either a hotel, or use a commercial campground at several times the cost. This does not even mention the countless other tourists including foreigners who have come to America spending their money here to vacation and see some of the spectacular scenery and heritage preserved in our National Parks.

Every time it comes to a showdown over fiscally responsible spending the Democrats manage to twist the perceived inconvenience into a life and death struggle, that they blame the Republicans for creating. And every time the Republicans cave. It is no wonder the Democrats believe the Republicans will cave again this time.

Now don’t get me wrong, I think the Rich don’t deserve the money they earn and I think we should give their money to people who are not working and there is no better method than the Government to do it. However, I must draw the line when the White House argues that Obama-care is a tax to justify it in the Supreme Court yet when the Republicans stand their ground and say that everyone should be subjected to the tax, the Democrats Balk. It is time to write your congress people and tell them that everyone should be subjected to Obama-care, including labor unions, the Legislative branch, the Executive branch, the military. There should be NO special treatment levels for the democrats special interest groups.

Richard (profile) says:


The government website shutdown is pure theatre. I would bet that it costs more on average than leaving them up. Remember that shutting them down involves soem government employee who isn’t supposed to be working doing the job.

In fact I would say that the whole government shutdown is pure theatre.

In some virtual political world the government “doesn’t have any money” and so a certain amount of “not doing stuff” has to happen in the real world in order that the fact that the political world is pure fantasy isn’t too obvious.

Ben says:

FTC Website

The FTC site is using a meta refresh redirect (sort of a pure html redirect) instead of a server redirect (301 or 302). That is why you see the page load first (it has to load the html before it knows to redirect).

Most browsers have web developer tools were you can turn off meta redirects very easily.

That said, I wouldn’t knock it too much. In this case, I doubt bandwidth costs are an issue, more likely the purpose of the redirect is to inform people that anything you may try to do on the site won’t reach a person (applying for stuff, questions, etc because the gov is shut down). So, even if you bypass it, it has still served its purpose (a pop up could serve the same purpose, for example).

Nick (profile) says:

Amusingly, I was able to avoid the redirect by simply stopping the page load before it loaded completely and was able to browse a – to me – fully functional website. Unfortunately I wasn’t fast enough on the button the second page when I clicked a random link and got redirected and…

Discovered that not only does it redirect, but it also deletes your “last visited” page so you can’t simply go “back” one page and try again. Can I sue them under the CFAA for “hacking” my web browser?

FarSide (profile) says:

Re: Re: !Ron Paul 2016!

Yeah, just the other day the owners of my company got into an argument about our health plan.

They started yelling at each other in front of everyone. And then, since they couldn’t come to an agreement, they sent everyone home and closed down the office until they figure it out.

Oh, my bad, that didn’t happen. Because it doesn’t make any sense.

John Fenderson (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: !Ron Paul 2016!

You joke, but I’ve seen actions that were even stupider than that. And the bigger the company, the more likely you are to see such idiocy.

Many people assert that private businesses act somehow more rationally than government — but I’ve never seen any sign that that’s actually true. From my experience, neither the public nor the private sector has an exclusive on self-destructive politically motivated behavior.

Anonymous Coward says:

In a Real Democracy

In a Real Democracy, Where a political party managed to stop supply (money for day to day operation of the government) there would be an election pretty quick afterword. Generally the public is polarized on the issues at hand, and at such times and that normally helps returns the party in power to government.

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