Presidential Records Act Enters the 21st Century with Social Media
by Roger Strother*, 9/16/2009
Earlier today, the Washington Times ran an article that appeared critical of the Obama administration under the overly dramatic title “[White House] Collects web users’ data without notice.” This White House effort is, however, unsurprising and mandated by law – the Presidential Records Act. However, with the new age of government engaging citizens on Facebook, Twitter, and other Web 2.0 social tools the task of archiving electronic presidential communications is more complicated and requires the application of modern archival standards.
In response to the Watergate Scandal whereby former President Nixon resigned to hold onto presidential records as a private citizen, Congress passed the Presidential Records Act in 1978. Since the passage of this now-famous law, records created or received by the President are considered by law to be records that belong to the public. The term “records” is broad enough to apply to anything from handwritten letters to a Facebook message or a direct message on Twitter. Simply put, these are historical records and eventually become part of the American memory. If you write to the president, you do not have, nor has anyone ever had, a reasonable expectation to privacy.
Despite the Washington Times’ claim of breaking an “exclusive” story, the White House had been publicly hunting for a contractor for nearly a month to take on this task. On August 21, the White House posted a solicitation on FedBizOpps.gov for a contractor to “transfer content published by EOP on publicly-accessible web sites, along with information posted by non-EOP persons on publicly-accessible web sites where the EOP offices under PRA maintains a presence.” The solicitation further defines these sites as “Facebook.com/whitehouse” and “Twitter.com/whitehouse” not all of Facebook or Twitter as some of the individuals interviewed for the Times’ article suggest. The purpose of the contract is to help the administration comply with the law and to do so in a way that conforms to modern electronic archival standards.
The archiving effort is not new nor is it unique to the Obama administration. The Bush administration archived comments received by its website but did not engage citizens on Facebook and Twitter to the extent that the current administration does and had no need for archiving there. Currently, the Obama administration already archives information from their Facebook and Twitter sites using Application Programming Interfaces (APIs) available to anyone from the networking sites themselves.
The purpose of using a contractor, however, is to ensure that the way in which these records are archived and processed is efficient, scalable, and reliable. Some material such as video, graphic, and audio are more difficult to archive. Further, it must be archived in such formats that enable users in the future to open these records.
The Bush administration was not as concerned with such long-term electronic archiving and often archived electronic records in printed form. Instead, the government is increasing efforts at long-term electronic preservation. In this way, future presidential records will be searchable and organized by keyword, date, file type, etc. thus increasing the availability of information. Overall, this is a very positive step forward for historical preservation.
Larger Twitter Graphic from Flickr user 7son75.