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Obamacare site: When is a crash not a crash?

Users have encountered delays, or the inability to register at all, since HealthCare.gov rolled out October 1.

Story highlights

  • Health secretary says Obamacare site "has never crashed"
  • Kathleen Sebelius apologized for "miserably frustrating" problems
  • But tech experts say the site's glitches qualify as a "crash"
  • Some on the Web mocked her comment

When is a website crash not a crash? That question has been on the minds of many since the government official responsible for the beleaguered HealthCare.gov site testified Wednesday before Congress.

Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius apologized and took responsibility for what she called "miserably frustrating" problems with the site, which launched October 1.

But it was a parenthetical comment that turned heads.

"We were anxious to get the website up and running and functional, which we clearly have failed to do to date," Sebelius said. "Although, I would suggest the website has never crashed. It is functional but at a very slow speed and very low reliability."

Hasn't crashed, really? Critics of the site's failures -- as well as of the Affordable Care Act itself -- immediately pounced on her statement.

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One congresswoman pulled up the Obamacare site on an overhead projector during the hearing, appearing to show that it wasn't accessible at the time. (In fairness, it's not clear whether that problem was due to the site itself or a problem with host Verizon's servers that cropped up in the past few days. For what it's worth, it was opening for us just fine Wednesday afternoon).

    So, while Sebelius owned up to the errors that have plagued the site for the millions trying to use it, she seemed to be suggesting that, since the entire thing has never ground to a complete halt, it hasn't "crashed."

    Tech community, how does that sound?

    "The site was crashing," said David Kennedy of online security firm TrustedSec.

    "A crash is defined in the basic sense as an application not behaving as anticipated or not being able to handle something due to programming flaws," Kennedy added.

    "The system doesn't work or stops serving because of the issues," he said. "Basically, exactly what happened to the HealthCare.gov website."

    The definition at Internet-centric encyclopedia Webopedia is similarly broad. It defines a crash as "a serious computer failure."

    "A computer crash means that the computer itself stops working or that a program aborts unexpectedly," the definition continues.

    Kennedy said that what's been happening with the health care website is different from slowness caused by heavy traffic, which is not uncommon when sites debut to higher-than-expected popularity.

    Instead, Kennedy said, the site is delivering error messages and not letting people register, suggesting flaws in its coding.

    Technicalities aside, the wags of the Internet were having fun with Sebelius' comment.

    "Depends what the meaning of 'crash' is," wrote conservative blogger Keith Koffler. "Like, was it driving a car and it didn't crash into anything, so the website made it home from soccer practice? Or, does the website only go to parties to which it has been invited?"

    Twitter, of course, chimed in.

    "The Hindenburg didn't crash," wrote @ClarenceWhorley. "It was just flying on the ground while on fire."

    Michael Hayes, a reporter for BuzzFeed, wrote than Sebelius should do an AMA, the popular question-and-answer sessions on Reddit.

    "That," replied Business Insider editor Paul Szoldra, "would crash Reddit."