ALLEGHENY COUNTY Port authority plans to sell Internet ads
The plan has some worried about mixing government with advertising.
PITTSBURGH (AP) -- The Port Authority of Allegheny County has covered its buses with ads for years, and now plans to sell advertising space on its Web site.
While the transit agency says the Internet ads will help boost overall ad revenues to $2 million this year from $1.6 million last year, experts and other governmental officials disagree on whether the ads are an untapped resource -- or a minefield of potential litigation.
"I'm definitely open-minded to it," said Allegheny County Executive Dan Onorato. "If there is any way to generate money that would minimize the burden on taxpayers, I think we should consider it."
Owen Hannay, owner of the Dallas-based Internet ad company Slingshot, said government agencies would likely earn $10 to $20 for every 1,000 times somebody views the page.
The Pennsylvania Lottery Web page, the most popular government site in the state, gets about 80,000 views a day -- and could bring up to $584,000 using Hannay's estimates.
Allegheny County stopped counting Web visitors last year, but nearly 18,000 people were logging onto its site every day. Last year's numbers could raise $130,000 a year -- but the county Computer Services Department is expecting twice that many visitors once property reassessment data goes online later this year, said Per Madsen, the county's chief information officer.
So why aren't governments lining up to cash in on the cyber windfall? A fear of the unknown, among other things, experts say.
"It's one of those ideas that intuitively looked right, but then that's why they have the word 'counterintuitive,'" said Ralph Zerbonia, general manager of cboss Inc., a Youngstown, Ohio, company that designs government Web sites. "Nobody wanted to be the first to have the court decisions tried out on them."
On the other hand, if governments take the advertising plunge, their Web sites can be a dream for target marketers. Imagine, for example, an auto parts company advertising on the page where motorists go to renew their vehicle registration, Zerbonia said.
Government officials across the country have been mulling Internet ads since they became popular in the late 1990s. But concerns about lawsuits -- and troubles that arise if a government appears to be endorsing one product over another -- have slowed growth in the field.
"There were visions of hate groups being allowed to have an ad that would pop up on a social services Web site," Zerbonia said.
Linda Plazak ran an 18-month project to create a Web site for the state of Iowa in 1997 and 1998, and said the question of whether to allow ads became "sort of a hot potato. How do you define who can advertise and who can't on a government Web site?
Port Authority not worried
The Port Authority isn't concerned because court cases already have addressed similar issues about whether and where ads can be placed on buses and other property paid for with government funds, said spokeswoman Judi McNeil.
"Case law has supported transit agencies that have [advertising] policies in place," McNeil said. "As long as you have a policy, you're good to go."
The Port Authority's 1998 policy for bus ads bans those considered political, lewd, libelous, or those that promote sexual conduct or drug or alcohol use. The policy doesn't keep agencies like the Port Authority from being sued -- but it can help them win in court, McNeil said.
Onorato, who graduated from the University of Pittsburgh School of Law, said he believes many of the concerns are overblown.
"There's no free-speech issue here," Onorato said. "This is a contract. This is an advertisement."