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Keeping public information public: records laws and federal websites

This is the second post in a three-part series (read part one here).

The front of the national archives building
The National Archives and Records Administration ensures that records laws are applied to government information on the internet. Photo by Wknight94

In recent years, the internet has become a leading medium for publishing and accessing information, including the huge volume and diversity of information produced by the federal government. While online publishing has created unprecedented opportunities for public access, the ever-changing nature of the web can create challenges for consistent, long-term access.

Libraries help people access both recent and historical information. In today’s digital environment, ALA has advocated for policies to prevent the loss of important information on government websites.

How do federal records laws apply to information on government websites?

Historically, federal records laws have been format-neutral, and have evolved to incorporate new technologies as they emerge. In fact, ALA was a plaintiff in a major test of the laws in 1993, which resulted in an appellate court ruling that electronic documents could be considered records.

Subsequently, the Paperwork Reduction Act of 1995 directed agencies to implement “requirements for archiving information maintained in electronic format.” Even more specifically, the E-Government Act of 2002 directed the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) to ensure that records laws “are applied effectively and comprehensively to government information on the internet.”

What are agency responsibilities to manage web content?

Consequently, in 2005, NARA issued guidance to agencies explaining their responsibilities under federal records laws for information on agency websites. The guidance states that “agencies must document all of their agency programs, including web sites, that are part of its overall public message.”

Agencies must preserve those records for a sufficient length of time in line with their value. Even if an agency modifies or deletes content from its website, the agency may have to preserve a copy of that content. (Exactly what information an agency must preserve, and for how long, depends on its expected value; learn more about that topic in an upcoming post.)

While the information may no longer be accessible on a public website, as long as the record exists, the public may request a copy under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). In addition, for records deemed to have permanent value, agencies must transfer the records to NARA, which will make the records available to the public through the National Archives.

How can we improve long-term access to online government information?

Recently, ALA has advocated on two fronts to improve the public’s access to information on federal websites: how agencies remove or modify information on their websites, and how they archive information on their websites.

Policies on removing or modifying information: The Paperwork Reduction Act requires agencies to “provide adequate notice when initiating, substantially modifying, or terminating significant information dissemination products.” The Office of Management and Budget (OMB) oversees implementation of that law. In February, ALA joined with more 70 organizations in asking OMB to provide guidance on how agencies should apply that requirement before removing or changing content on federal websites. OMB responded by reminding agencies of the law, but it has not explained how agencies should implement their responsibilities. ALA encourages Congress to examine this issue when it considers reauthorization of the Paperwork Reduction Act.

Policies on archiving information: NARA’s 2005 guidance on web records remains in current effect. Because online publishing has changed a lot in the past 12 years, this September, NARA indicated that it plans to update the guidance. On Nov. 14, ALA joined with Open The Government and the Sunlight Foundation to send recommendations to NARA on how to update its guidance and other policies to ensure that agency web content is effectively managed and archived.

Effective management and preservation of online government information allows libraries to best serve their communities with the information they seek. ALA will continue to advocate for policies that protect public access to government information, both current and historical.

In an upcoming post, learn more about how agencies schedule records for retention based on their expected value.

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Gavin Baker

Gavin Baker is an assistant director of Government Relations. He advocates for library priorities on government information and transparency issues. Previously, he worked at California Common Cause, the Center for Effective Government / OMB Watch and the Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition. Gavin earned his M.S. in library and information studies from Florida State University and his B.A. in political science from the University of Florida.

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