Reality Check: The Presidential Records Act of 1978 meets web-based social media of 2009
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. Before I address some specific issues raised in these stories, let me give you a little background.
The PRA was passed after a Watergate controversy over President Nixon’s records. The Act requires the preservation of records created or received by the President or his staff. When a President leaves office, these records go to the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA), which eventually releases them to the public. Importantly, the PRA requires NARA to prevent the public disclosure of information that would be a clearly unwarranted invasion of personal privacy.
The PRA affects our day-to-day life in the White House.
This very blog post will be archived. All emails on the White House system are automatically saved. Commercial email services are blocked from White House computers in part because of the PRA. The statute even applies to handwritten notes between staff.
The PRA also extends to communications from people outside the White House. So if a lobbyist or CEO emails the White House, that communication is a presidential record and will eventually be made public. The same holds true for correspondence received by the White House from the public. Because of the PRA, Presidents Reagan, Bush, Clinton, and Bush all treated letters, faxes, and other communications from the public as presidential records.
Here’s where it gets interesting. The PRA was written in 1978. It doesn’t have a section on email. But everyone agrees that these electronic communications meet the Act’s broad definition of presidential records, and that the White House is legally required to preserve them.
The emergence of social media has created new forms of communication. Instead of sending an email, people often now post on someone’s profile or comment on a video or photo that's been uploaded. 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.
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.
It’s less expensive and more reliable to meet this obligation through an automated archiving process. That’s why we posted a draft request for a proposal for an automated archiving process. 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.
That’s just not reality. The draft request is and has been posted on a public website. 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.