White House Defends Archiving Comments from Facebook, MySpace, YouTube, Twitter Sites

September 21, 2009 - 6:53 PM
The Obama administration said that archiving citizen postings on White House social networking sites, such as Facebook and MySpace, is just a matter of following the law and dismissed any assertions that there might be something "sinister" about collecting such information.

President Barack Obama (AP Photo)

(CNSNews.com) – The Obama administration said that archiving citizen postings on White House social networking sites, such as Facebook and MySpace, is just a matter of following the law and dismissed any assertions that there might be something “sinister” about collecting such information.
 
“Recently, we have seen a few stories questioning how the Presidential Records Act (PRA) intersects with Americans’ use of modern social media, like Facebook and Twitter, to communicate with the White House,” wrote Macon Phillips, director of new media, on the White House’s blog on Saturday.
 
CNSNews.com first reported on Sept. 1 that the White House is seeking a private contractor to archive comments posted on the social networking sites maintained by the White House.
 
These sites are: www.facebook.com/whitehouse; www.twitter.com/whitehouse; www.myspace.com/whitehouse; www.flickr.com/whitehouse; www.youtube.com/whitehouse; www.vimeo.com/whitehouse and www.slideshare.com/whitehouse.
 
Government watchdog groups, such as the National Legal and Policy Center (NLPC), expressed concern about whether collecting the information is consistent with federal privacy law or if gathering such information could be used for political reasons.
 
The Presidential Records Act generally requires that the administration preserve information generated by the president and his staff, typically called the Executive Office of the President (EOP).
 
Phillips said that archiving information on social networking sites is required by law. However, the White House request seeking bids said it was not required by law but was being done out of an “abundance of caution.”
 
“Recently, some have characterized this as a secret, sinister plan to catalog the activity of individuals on all social networks and capture personal or private information about individuals without their consent,” Phillips wrote, without identifying who apparently made those characterizations.
 
“That’s just not reality. The draft request is and has been posted on a public Web site,” said Phillips. “The White House is not archiving all content or activity across social networks where we have a page – nor do we want to. The only content archived is what is voluntarily published on the White House’s official pages on these sites or what is voluntarily sent to a White House account.”
 
Ken Boehm, chairman of the NLPC, is not aware of anyone alleging that all social networking information is to be collected, but he thinks the collection of this information goes beyond the Presidential Records Act.
 
“Applying the Presidential Records Act to anything the White House staff posts on these sites is not controversial – that should be collected,” Boehm told CNSNews.com. “Over the years, the law extended. If the president sent a letter out in response to someone, the letter he is responding to would be included. That’s not controversial.
 
“Where it gets fuzzy is when the White House posts a video on YouTube. If someone comments, they likely think they’re weighing in on a blog or something, not making a correspondence to the White House,” Boehm said.
 
The concerns among government watchdog groups emerged after the White House reversed a policy of encouraging citizens to send messages to flag@whitehouse.gov to report opposition to the health care reform legislation.
 
In mid-August, the White House put out a “request for quotation” (RFQ) that seeks bids from private firms for the archiving project. Under the terms stated by the White House, the contractor would have broad responsibilities in collecting information from White House-related Web pages.
 
As of Monday, 29 companies expressed interest in the contract.
 
The RFQ for bids says the contractor is to “capture, store, [and] extract” information that will be transferred to the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) for permanent storage.
 
According to the White House proposal, the information involved will include the “capture of comments and publicly visible tags posted by users” on publicly accessible Web sites where the White House has established a “presence.” “Publicly-accessible sites may include, but are not limited to social networking sites,” says the RFQ.
 
“When people want to tell the White House what they think, they’ll often do the same thing on our social media pages. A lot of times, we solicit this feedback because we want to hear from you,” Phillips wrote.
 
“These new types of communications from individuals to the White House, even though they take a different form, are governed by the PRA, Working with NARA, we’ve concluded that comments and messages the White House receives on its official pages are presidential records. That means the PRA requires us, by law, to preserve them,” Phillips added.
 
The RFQ, however, was less clear on whether social networking sites must be archived under the PRA.
 
In the question-and-answer section on the last page of the RFQ, it states: “The Presidential Records Act does not require the storage or archiving of non-EOP [Executive Office of the President] content, as such is there a specific reason as to why the content provided on EOP related Web sites in the form of comments is included in these archiving procedures?”

The answer reads: “PRA includes in its definition of presidential records content ‘received’ by PRA components and personnel. Out of an abundance of caution, we are treating comments made by non-PRA personnel on sites on which a PRA component has a presence as presidential records, requiring them to be captured or sampled.”
 
Boehm, an attorney, thinks that the PRA component claim it is not required by law and might well be an unnecessary government expense, but he said he has deeper concerns.
 
“The real thing is, are they going to use it to monitor public opinion on the Web, pro or con?” Boehm said. “Will there be a White House effort to have a presence on as many blogs as possible to collect more comments?”