Now we should call it anti-social media.
In an effort to make the federal government more transparent, the Obama administration may have found a new, technologically savvy way to circumvent legal requirements that official correspondence must be archived.
This change in policy came two weeks ago when President Obama lessened the requirements of the 1980 Paperwork Reduction Act to ease government agencies participation in social media. Effective April 7, government agencies can blog, post videos and use social media like Facebook and Twitter without archiving the data.
So what? Well, if you care about transparency and accountability this change is important.
With this new policy, government officials have the opportunity to communicate in secret without worrying about pesky Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests. A majority of their conversations or online post will no longer be archived. Meaning that there will be no record for the public to view after the information leaves a website.
FOIA request are a fundamental way for the public to gain access to information about our government. From visitors at the White House to email exchanges in Congress, this information is archived so the government remains accountable. However, now government officials could use social media for everything from campaigning to communicating with lobbyists, thereby conducting government activity in the dark.
Take for example the recent controversy surrounding White House deputy CTO Andrew McLaughlin and his unwitting exposure of Google Buzz contacts, which included high profile lobbyists. McLaughlin signed on to Google’s Buzz service, and inadvertently made public his contacts or “followers,” which included two-dozen Google employees. Previously McLaughlin was Google’s chief Washington lobbyist, which has led to the questions over whether he used Gmail for work-related emails, a violation of congressional and White House rules.
Now consider the new policy and McLaughlin’s situation. Because he and the White House now have looser rules on reporting their online activities, McLaughlin could communicate with lobbyists and work on political campaign on the tax payers’ dime, which would be a flagrant violation of several laws.
This change could also have implications on government agencies. If employees at any of our government agencies are able to engage lobbyists via the Internet without having to archive their conversations, then the government will be opening the door to more conflicts of interest and corruption with no records of the communications.
The popularity of social media is not going away, but instead of relaxing the laws to make them easier to abuse, the Obama administration must stay committed to keeping the American government transparent. It is important for our federal government to have a presence on social media outlets, but it should not come at the cost of accountability.
Jason Stverak is President of the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity, a leading journalism non-profit organization. The Franklin Center is dedicated to providing reporters, citizens and non-profit organizations at the state and local level with training, expertise and technical support. For more information on the Franklin Center please visit www.FranklinCenterHQ.org.
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