Sep 192009
 September 19, 2009  Featured News, Govt, Online, U.S. Comments Off on Reality Check: The Presidential Records Act of 1978 meets web-based social media of 2009

Macon Phillips posted this on the The White House blog:

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.


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.

Let’s also talk about your personal privacy, because there are a lot of legitimate, new questions about this issue in a world of evolving technology.  The PRA, like FOIA, requires NARA to restrict access to information in presidential records that unduly intrudes upon personal privacy.  (So if your email to the President contains personal information, NARA must protect that information from public disclosure.)  Additionally, we’ve updated our privacy policy to inform people of the PRA, and are updating the language on our social media pages to make sure people know that their comments and messages to the White House are presidential records and may be archived.  To learn more about our privacy policy, read the entire page here:

And if you have questions or comments about the privacy policy or the PRA, please let us know.

Sep 162009
 September 16, 2009  Govt, Online Comments Off on A Bizarre Privacy Indictment

Jim Harper writes:

Page one of today’s Washington Times—above the fold—has a fascinating story indicting the White House for failing to disclose that it will collect and retain material posted by visitors to its pages on social networking sites like Facebook and YouTube. The story is fascinating because so much attention is being paid to it. (It was first reported, as an aside at least, by Major Garrett on Fox News a month ago.)

The question here is not over the niceties of the Presidential Records Act, which may or may not require collection and storage of the data. It’s over people’s expectations when they use the Internet.

Read more on [email protected]

Related: EXCLUSIVE: W.H. collects Web users’ data without notice. As Harper suggests, this is not really an EXCLUSIVE or news. This site covered it on September 3, here.

Aug 272009
 August 27, 2009  Court, Featured News, Govt, U.S. Comments Off on White House sued over free speech violations in healthcare battle

The Office of the President and other White House officials are defendants in a free speech lawsuit filed by a prominent physician group, and a non-profit advocate for inner-city poor, according to a new press release.

The White House has “unlawfully collected information on political speech,” thereby illegally using the power of the White House to chill opposition to its plans for health care reform, according to the complaint filed in District Court for the District of Columbia, by the Association of American Physicians and Surgeons (AAPS) and the Coalition for Urban Renewal and Education (CURE)

The lawsuit was prompted by the White House solicitation for the public to report any “fishy” comments to ‘[email protected]’ Although the White House slightly revised its data collection procedure last week, the email address still exists, the illegal activity continues, and is part of an “unlawful pattern and practice to collect and maintain information” on the exercise of free speech, which “continues in violation of the Privacy Act and First Amendment even if the Defendants terminate a particular information-collection component due to negative publicity.”

The lawsuit outlines how the White House has employed a form of “bait-and-switch” tactic of accusing the Plaintiffs and other opponents of spreading misinformation about the Administration’s goals for health care reform, and thereby refusing to ‘come clean’ about its real agenda.

The lawsuit outlines that the White House knew that the data collection would chill free speech, and in fact, intended to do just that:

“43. As part of their effort to advance the White House healthcare
reform agenda, Defendants have accused opponents (including
Plaintiffs) of spreading misinformation on issues such as whether
(a) health reform would provide public funding for abortions, (b) put
“death panels” in place to deny care to the elderly or infirm,
(c) amount to a government takeover of healthcare, and (d) increase
healthcare costs..the Defendants and the administration have spread
misinformation, semantics, and disinformation on these topics…..

“45. By denying and continuing to deny that healthcare reform
legislation includes “death panels” that make individual life-or-death
decisions on the elderly or infirm, the Defendants and the current
administration have ignored and implicitly denied and continue to
ignore and implicitly to deny both that their healthcare reform agenda
involves rationing healthcare…”

“My hate mail started shortly after the White House issued the ‘fishy’ request,” said Kathryn Serkes, Director of Policy and Public Affairs for AAPS. “We were quite visible and vocal before then, so it doesn’t seem like a coincidence. Who did they share their data with? With whom might they share it?”

AAPS and CURE demand that the White House remove all information already collected, and further, be prohibited from collecting any personal data in the future.

NOTE: AAPS is a non-partisan professional association of physicians dedicated since 1943 to protection of the patient-physician relationship. CURE, founded by Star Parker, serves poor and inner-city communities through church, individual, and market-based solutions to poverty.

The case number is Civil Action No. 09-1621-EGS. The full text of the complaint is available on request .

SOURCE Association of American Physicians and Surgeons (AAPS)

Aug 062009
 August 6, 2009  Featured News, Govt Comments Off on WH healthcare campaign raises data privacy worries

The White House raised the spectre of “Big Brother” this week after a blog entry asked supporters to report “fishy” information they receive regarding the debate on healthcare reform by forwarding emails to [email protected]:

There is a lot of disinformation about health insurance reform out there, spanning from control of personal finances to end of life care. These rumors often travel just below the surface via chain emails or through casual conversation. Since we can’t keep track of all of them here at the White House, we’re asking for your help. If you get an email or see something on the web about health insurance reform that seems fishy, send it to [email protected]

Senator John Cornyn (R-TX) responded with a letter to the President. The text of Senator Cornyn’s letter to President Obama:

Dear President Obama,

I write to express my concern about a new White House program to monitor American citizens’ speech opposing your health care policies, and to seek your assurances that this program is being carried out in a manner consistent with the First Amendment and America’s tradition of free speech and public discourse.

Yesterday, in an official White House release entitled “Facts are Stubborn Things,” the White House Director of New Media, Macon Phillips, asserted that there was “a lot of disinformation out there,” and encouraged citizens to report “fishy” speech opposing your health care policies to the White House. Phillips specifically targeted private, unpublished, even casual speech, writing that “rumors often travel just below the surface via chain emails or through casual conversation.” Phillips wrote “If you get an email or see something on the web about health insurance reform that seems fishy, send it to [email protected]

I am not aware of any precedent for a President asking American citizens to report their fellow citizens to the White House for pure political speech that is deemed “fishy” or otherwise inimical to the White House’s political interests.

By requesting that citizens send “fishy” emails to the White House, it is inevitable that the names, email addresses, IP addresses, and private speech of U.S. citizens will be reported to the White House. You should not be surprised that these actions taken by your White House staff raise the specter of a data collection program. As Congress debates health care reform and other critical policy matters, citizen engagement must not be chilled by fear of government monitoring the exercise of free speech rights.

I can only imagine the level of justifiable outrage had your predecessor asked Americans to forward emails critical of his policies to the White House. I suspect that you would have been leading the charge in condemning such a program-and I would have been at your side denouncing such heavy-handed government action.

So I urge you to cease this program immediately. At the very least, I request that you detail to Congress and the public the protocols that your White House is following to purge the names, email addresses, IP addresses, and identities of citizens who are reported to have engaged in “fishy” speech. And I respectfully request an answer to the following:

  • How do you intend to use the names, email addresses, IP addresses, and identities of citizens who are reported to have engaged in “fishy” speech?
  • How do you intend to notify citizens who have been reported for “fishy” speech?
  • What action do you intend to take against citizens who have been reported for engaging in “fishy” speech?
  • Do your own past statements qualify as “disinformation”? For example, is it “disinformation” to note that in 2003 you said:”I happen to be a proponent of a single-payer universal health care plan”?

I look forward to your prompt response.

While the politics are both sides are fairly evident, it is worth noting that as Tony Bradley points out, the White House does preserve all correspondence it receives, so that if an email you wrote to your friend got forwarded to the White House by a third party, your email would be documented in the National Archives. Some people might not be concerned about that, but having your email archived without your knowledge or consent is a privacy issue for others.