White House Seeks to Capture and Archive Citizens’ Comments on its Facebook, YouTube, MySpace Sites

September 1, 2009 - 2:04 PM
Anyone who posts comments on the White House's Facebook, MySpace, YouTube and Twitter pages could have their statements captured and permanently archived by the federal government.

President Barack Obama speaks about the economy, Friday, Aug. 7, 2009, in the Rose Garden of The White House in Washington. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

(CNSNews.com) – Anyone who posts comments on the White House’s Facebook, MySpace, YouTube and Twitter pages will have their statements captured and permanently archived by the federal government, according to a plan that the White House is now seeking a contractor to carry out.

The Executive Office of the President is looking for a private contractor to capture and archive comments and information posted on social networking and new media sites where the White House has established a presence. While the Presidential Records Act (PRA) generally requires that the administration preserve information generated by the president and his staff, the White House says that in seeking to collect and preserve comments made by common citizens on social networking sites it is acting “out of an abundance of caution” to comply with the law.

In mid-August, the White House put out a “request for quotation (RFQ)which seeks bids from private firms for the project. Under the terms stated by the White House, the contractor would have broad responsibilities in collecting information from White House related Web pages.

The RFQ for bids says the contractor is to “capture, store, [and] extract” information that will be transferred to the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) for permanent storage.  According to the White House proposal, the information involved will include the “capture of comments and publicly visible tags posted by users” on publicly accessible Web sites where the White House has established a presence.

“Publicly-accessible sites may include, but are not limited to social networking sites,” says the RFQ.

The document says that White House—which it refers to as the Executive Office of the President (EOP)--“currently maintains” seven sites. These are, www.facebook.com/whitehouse, www.twitter.com/whitehouse, www.myspace.com/whitehouse, www.flickr.com/whitehouse, www.youtube.com/whitehouse, www.vimeo.com/whitehouse, www.slideshare.com/whitehouse.

The document also says, “The contractor shall include the information posted by non-EOP persons on publicly-accessible web sites where the EOP maintains a presence.” This would include “both comments posted on pages created by EOP and messages sent to EOP accounts on those web sites.”

The RFQ says: “Currently, the government team is capturing the data and content.” It does not specify, however, whether the data and content that is currently being captured by the government includes the comments posted by citizens on the White House social networking sites, as the RFQ envisions an outside contractor would do once that contractor is hired.

The White House did not respond to questions from CNSNews.com about this RFQ and whether it has already started capturing citizens’ comments posted on the White House’s Facebook, Myspace, YouTube and Twitter pages.

In the question and answer section on the last page of the RFQ, it says: “The Presidential Records Act does not require the storage or archiving of non-EOP content, as such is there a specific reason as to why the content provided on EOP related websites in the form of comments is included in these archiving procedures?”

The answer: “PRA includes in its definition of presidential records content ‘received’ by PRA components and personnel. Out of an abundance of caution, we are treating comments made by non-PRA personnel on sites on which a PRA component has a presence as presidential records, requiring them to be captured or sampled.”

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The White House RFQ calls for a 12-month contract that allows for seven one-year extensions. The RFQ does not estimate the cost of the project. It also requires confidentiality on the part of the contractor.

The scope of the project, according to the RFQ includes, “Capture of comments and publicly-visible tags posted by users on publicly–accessible websites on which an EOP component subject to the PRA maintains a presence. Vendor must be able to either: (i.) Capture all comments posted to a list of web sites provided to vendor; or (ii.) capture a sample of comments posted to a list of websites provided to the vendor according to a sampling methodology that will be provided to vendor and approved by EOP.”

“In order to comply with the Presidential Records Act,” says the RFQ, “the White House New Media team is looking for a non personnel service contractor to crawl and archive PRA content on all third party sites where the EOP has a presence (i.e. Facebook.com/whitehouse, Twitter.com/whitehouse).”

The RFQ tells vendors to contact the Office of Procurement and Contract Management Officer at the Executive Office of the President.

As of Sept. 1, 10 private firms have shown an interest in the project.

Neither the procurement office nor the White House press office responded to questions about the project from CNSNews.com last week and this week.

The National Legal and Policy Center, a conservative government watchdog group that discovered the 51-page bid solicitation, was highly critical of the project.

“This is a huge, secretive effort by the White House to capture web material far beyond what is required by the Presidential Records Act, which only requires archiving materials produced by the president and his staff at the Executive Office of the President,” said NLPC chairman Ken Boehm in a statement to CNSNews.com Monday.

The concerns raised by the NLPC come after the White House reversed a policy of encouraging citizens to send messages to flag@whitehouse.gov to report opposition to the health-care reform legislation backed by President Obama after Fox News reported that citizens were getting e-mail messages from the White House promoting the health bill despite having never signed up for messages.

However, Wayne Crews, director of technology studies at the Competitive Enterprise Institute, said he did not believe the White House RFQ for this project was cause for alarm.

“As much as I oppose information gathering, my problem is when databases are compulsory,” Crews, co-editor of the book Who Rules the Net: Internet Governance and Jurisdiction, told CNSNews.com. “I always say; if it’s privacy you want, the Internet is the wrong network for you.”

Crews does believe the government should make extra efforts to make people aware that the comments they post on White House networking sites will be archived.

“It’s not just presidential statements and proclamations, but anything people leave on a Web site becomes part of a permanent record potentially traceable to them,” Crews said. “I have to say, given the nature of social Web sites, it doesn’t worry me a lot.”

Nonetheless, the NLPC maintains that broad non-disclosure requirements for the contractor and the possible wholesale capture of all comments, including those critical of the president, are particularly troubling.

The anti-disclosure requirements are on page seven of the RFQ.

“The contractor also agrees not to publish, reproduce or otherwise divulge such information in whole or part, in any manner or form, nor authorize or permit to do so,” the RFQ says, “taking reasonable measures as are necessary to restrict access to the information, while in his or her possession, to these employees who must have the information to perform the work provided herein on a ‘need to know’ basis, and agree to immediately notify the Contracting Office in writing in the event the contractor determines, or has reason to suspect, a break of this requirement.