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Social Media and FOIA implications

It seems to me that using 3rd party social applications can be a great boon for government in communicating and collaborating with its constituents. However, when a government entity uses Facebook, Twitter, blogs or other (free or hosted) applications, at what point does the agency become responsible to fulfill FOIA requests to posted comments, images, etc?

And has anyone explored an agency’s liability associated with a 3rd party’s cooperation in an FOIA request?

For example, our local government would like to experiment with Twitter to broadcast mobile alerts to followers. I would assume twittter stores all posts from users, but for how long? And how accessible would those logs be to agency staff and counsel if the need came about? Maybe a 3rd party keeps those posts on a server for three years, which may as well be a geologic eon in the digital world. But my state regulation may require five years of records retention. How can my agency best close the gap?

Are protective laws like FOIA the reason so many government agencies feel compelled to spend time and money “recreating the wheel” with in-house development or purchasing 3rd party applications that run-in house, rather than taking the plunge into applications? Maybe we’d be better off negotiating government terms of service agreements?

Okay – now the other edge of the sword. As a classically trained journalist and current advocate for online citizen services, I can appreciate the balance that needs to be struck between “getting the job done simply and quickly” and government accountability. I sincerely believe that we should “Trust but verify.” Each week there seems to be another headline of a government official accused of wrongdoing. FOIA and other guardian laws are vital in protecting citizens and communities from the very government they elect or appoint.

Has your agency taken the time to draft guidance policy for staff or investigated FOIA liability and social media? Anyone want to volunteer to be the test case?

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Scott Horvath

A few of us in our agency have been thinking about using Twitter as an additional service to get our word to people via cell phones when there’s a local building emergency. I know that sounds suspect…relying on Twitter for emergency information notifications…but we wouldn’t be relying on it. It would only serve as an additional avenue. We have more and more people coming into our office as employees/contractors that are of a generation that uses Twitter constantly so why not reach out to those people as well.

But regarding the FOIA issues, this is how the few of us talking see it happening. We already have a building status page accessible to employees which is great, but we’re going to be incorporating an RSS feed for this. There’s a backend form that allows us to update the status of the page which would, in turn, update the RSS feed. Then, using a service like Twitterfeed, we would have it set to automatically consume the RSS feed. Twitterfeed would then, in turn, feed a Twitter account that we would need to setup. And of course as Twitter updated then anyone following the feed would get a notification via cell if they chose to do that, or online, etc. All of this happens very quickly (assuming that Twitter is up and running 😉

Now, with FOIA issues I don’t think there’s any issue at all. The notification that ends up in Twitter is already in the source database, and in the RSS feed…which can easily be written to a TXT file on the backend if you wanted to do that. So if there’s ever a FOIA request for emergency alerts that happened on Twitter…we can simply show them the RSS feed, the TXT file, or the database export.

With others services it’ll be different what you do. I would probably go the route of having your lawyers speak with theirs and working out some clarification issues and modifications related to government use and FOIA records. I’d bet you would find many of those companies, if not all, more than willing to work out any issues in order to get the Government into using their services. After all…you’re a client/customer to them.

Emma Dozier

Two weeks ago, trying to do a brief report on our Twitter-ing activities, we discovered to our dismay that our tweets didn’t even go back to the beginning of the week!

I just checked today though, and it was going back at least three weeks. After that I was tired of hitting the “older” button. Maybe Twitter is expanding!