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Friday, June 7, 2013

Retaining Government Records in the Era of Social Media

Governments (cities, counties, states) are increasingly using social media sites such as Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube, among others, to disseminate information and engage their constituents. Unlike private individuals and groups, however, governments have to comply with all sorts of regulations and policies that are intended to promote government transparency.
For example, every state has enacted laws that require government bodies to retain public records and release them upon request, subject to a variety of exemptions.  The Florida Attorney General’s Office considers information on government social networking sites as subject to record retention laws because they are created for “a public purpose and connection with the transaction of the official business of the city.”  Public bodies should be aware that their own state laws may require these records to be retained indefinitely or that permission must be sought prior to destroying the records. 

In addition to the legal issues, the preservation of online government records also presents practical challenges for which there are few standards. Governments have little or no control over the third party hosts of these sites.  Government officials are also understandably concerned about the time, staffing, and money required to retain past social networking interactions. 
Governments might consider following one of the following approaches (or a combination thereof) in complying with open record laws.

At minimum, government officials should retain periodic screenshots of their Facebook or Twitter pages, especially if they posted the comments.  The benefit of this option is that it is a cost-effective way to retain these records.  The drawbacks are that it places a considerable demand on staff time and physical resources, requiring government officials and their support staff to adhere to a regular schedule of printing out screen shots.  Also, at a time when most municipalities are trying to reduce their consumption and storage of paper, local governments are forced to once again create physical filing space for screen captures.

Another option is for governments to rely on social networking companies (i.e. Facebook) to archive the online communications.  This perhaps is the most cost-effective and efficient means of preserving a government’s social media interactions with the least amount of demand on staff time.  Unfortunately, a private company’s record retention policy may not comply with open record laws leaving governments open for potential violations.  Moreover, the government has little or no control over the third-party "host" as to what is being retained and for how long. 

A third alternative is for governments to use archival subscription services, such as Archive-It, which was launched in 2006 by the Internet Archives, a non-profit organization.  According to Archive-It, governments collect, catalog, and manage their collection of social networking sites with “content stored and hosted through the Internet Archives data centers.”  Four cities (San Francisco, Seattle, Raleigh, and Cary, North Carolina) digitally archive their Facebook or multiple Twitter feeds at least once a month.  By default, all Archive-It collections are publicly available and accessible, but subscribers have the option of making their entire collection or parts of their collection private within a specific IP address.  Archived pages display a highlighted bar at the top of the screen with a date and timestamp of when the page was archived, a warning to users that the information on screen may be out of date, and a link to all versions of the archived page.

If a government ends its Archive-It subscription, the collection remains as is, but local officials always have the option of adding or removing content from the public site.  Moreover, public bodies can request that copies of data be sent to them for an additional fee.  Through Archive-It, and other similar programs, governments can create and customize a record retention system that is in compliance with its state’s open record laws.  The drawback is that this service may be out of reach for rural or smaller communities where cost, training, and possibly updating the city’s technological infrastructure present potential roadblocks to implementation.

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