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Apps.gov Needs to Carry the Public Records Torch

“…only 18% of Apps.gov services enable agencies to comply with public records laws”

If you’re viewing your town’s Facebook or Twitter account, chances are the city attorney is still recovering from a social media migraine. And you may think I’m joking, but somewhere in your state a government webmaster is printing comments made on their Facebook posts every day and filing them into a neat little box.

They’re doing so because these interactions may be considered public record, and as such, there is a legal duty to retain them. What’s the big deal? Most services prohibit saving data, defined in their Terms of Service (ToS), closing the door on many agencies and forcing others to creatively tiptoe around the conflict. Apps.gov, a service of the U.S. General Services Administration (GSA), is attempting to resolve the situation, but as I’ll explore, there’s still more work to be done to enable agencies to get out potentially life-saving information easily.

According to St. Petersburg, FL Web Coordinator Nicholas Stees,”Government agencies are forced to do more with less in regards to their budget, and not being able to use these free social media outlets is frustrating.” Nicholas is among the many government webmasters wrestling with public records issues on a regular basis.

Here are some solutions I’ve witnessed agencies using in the field:

  • Copy everything announced or produced into a separate file at the time of posting.
    Pro: Doesn’t take much time.
    Con: Social interactions and comments around the data aren’t retained, and many are public record.
  • Print every screen, showing every interaction from every user.
    Pro: Comprehensive and compliant.
    Con: It’s no longer a searchable electronic record (and Earth Day is around the bend).
  • Disable/block social interactions.
    Pro: Phew! Now we’re only storing what we create.
    Con: There goes the “social” from social media and all its benefits.
  • Utilize a tool to automate backups.
    Pro: Public records problem solved!
    Con: Almost always against the site’s ToS. Cease and desist letters will follow.
  • Ask services to play nice with government.
    Pro: Special ToS for govs enable social data saving for records retention.
    Con: Some overhead in executing these special agreements.

The last solution in my opinion is a win-win scenario. Social media wins by adding high-value government users to their networks and government wins by having permission to save the data they need to with internal or third party tools.

Open Government leaders like Barbara Petersen, President of the Florida First Amendment Foundation, are in agreement with this strategy as well. Petersen says, “It makes a lot more sense for governments to work with social media sites to amend their ToS agreements than it does for governments to ignore or prohibit the use of social media. The technology is available to meet record retention requirements and if more agencies request the large service providers like Facebook to amend their agreements for governmental entities, the more likely they will. It is a ‘win-win’ for the public and the providers.”

It may sound like a big feat, but Apps.gov it already set up to do it if they try.

Apps.gov’s primary focus is amending existing social media sites’ ToS in order to comply with federal laws. Flickr was the first on-board in February of 2009, and at the time of writing there are 33 social media networks with ToS amendments available to federal agencies. But here’s the issue: only six out of the 33 (18 percent) include what’s called the “Provision on crawlers” which enables agencies to use tools that save pages for records retention.

According to an Apps.gov’s representative, “the terms are non-negotiable,” yet 11 out of the 17 social media services that executed ToS amendments after the crawling provision was adopted had removed it entirely. When reached for comment, both GSA’s General Counsel and GSA Public Affairs refused to answer on the record.

As much as I’m interested in what’s going on behind closed doors at GSA, the idea isn’t to attack Apps.gov. It’s awesome that the government is putting time and money into enabling agencies to use social media to communicate with the public. However, here are three recommendations on what they need to do better:

  1. Make the crawling provision a no-exceptions requirement. Require that all social media services going forward include the crawling provision or make it clear that Application Programming Interfaces (APIs) are permitted to save all necessary public records data (including comments). API access is an authenticated, controlled method to access user data that services generally prefer over crawling.
  2. Go back to the 27 services that left it out. Change going forward is great, but the reality is that Facebook is among the 27 that prohibit saving user data and is arguably the highest demanded service. This could be accomplished with a one-page document that instates the provision.
  3. Adapt Apps.gov to state and local agencies. The same or similar model amendment template could apply to state and local agencies with the addition of a few words. Public records laws are enforced at every level of government and towns do not have the contacts or resources to negotiate new ToS on their own.

If all three were to happen, agencies nationwide would rejoice. Most importantly, they’d be saving lives in real emergencies by getting their message out over social networks. We must keep this conversation going…

About Chris Bennett

Chris Bennett is the Founder & CEO of GovLive, a real-time government news aggregation service with over 5,000 agencies nationwide. Chris speaks on Social Media in Government Tweets in #gov20 and #opengov. In the interest of full disclosure, GovLive Vault (http://govlive.com/vault) is a fee-based service that saves government social media.

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Interesting to see Ideascale – one of the most heavily used in the OpenGov dialogues – not starred.

Side note- it is scary when a social media nerd like myself still doesn’t know some of these words.

Dave Haft

How To Backup Facebook Page Wall Posts & Comments:

Do this each month:

1. Log out of your facebook account
2. Visit the page: facebook.com/YourPageName
3. Expand all the comment threads on your wall for the past month so you can see them
4. Along the top of your browser: File > Save Page As…
5. Choose File Type: “Web Page, complete”

To View Your Backup:
1. Open web browser, File > “Work Offline”
2. Then Open the file you saved via: File > Open …

Note: If you received more than 23 comments on a wall post, you’ll have to visit the page that contains your comments and save that separately.