Draft policy would treat Web info as fed records

Agencies will have to treat all information posted to their World Wide Web sites as federal records and establish oversight bodies to manage sites and control content according to an early draft release of Office of Management and Budget guidelines obtained by FCW.

The guidelines prepared in July and now circulating for comment state that existing statutes - including the Paperwork Reduction Act the Federal Records Act the Privacy Act the Freedom of Information Act and OMB Circular A-130 - apply to the Web.

Agencies will be required to follow existing procedures for creating storing and disposing of federal records when updating or removing information from a Web site and information will have to be recorded and archived just as paper copies are now.

The draft also says that when information posted to a Web site is changed or removed agency officials must notify the Government Printing Office to ensure that the information will still be publicly accessible.Glenn Schlarman policy analyst with OMB's Information Policy and Technology Division said he released draft copies to several agencies but retrieved them because they sparked a "lightning rod" of debate. OMB officials are now re-examining the draft as part of their plan to issue a policy he said.

"Users of the Internet and the Web are driven by these [existing statutes] " Schlarman said. "That is what is driving the train it's not some OMB compulsion. There will be policy. It's the breadth and depth of the policy...that is still not decided. In most cases the paper world does have a direct application to the electronic world."

Schlarman made these comments last week at a meeting of federal Webmasters some of whom questioned the feasibility of applying these existing laws to the Web. They cited real-time displays such as the clock for a space shuttle launch and weather maps as examples of Web page information that might not be easily recorded.

IT Execs Favor Different Approaches

Although several information technology officials agreed that a policy is needed their ideas differed about how it should be structured and enacted. Mike Neff a Webmaster at the General Services Administration said a technical solution - such as search and cataloging software that could monitor federal Web pages for changes and download those changes - would be "more feasible and more pragmatic" than requiring federal employees to download Web site information regularly.

"Hopefully a technical solution will be found that would be more suitable rather than having to burden hundreds of managers and administrators with it " Neff said.

Many government officials in charge of agency Web sites were reluctant to be identified in this story while others would not provide detailed responses.

Diane Litman manager of the information resources department at the Transportation Department said her department is planning to compile an official response to the guidelines to present to OMB.

"We think the implementation of the guidelines needs reconsideration " Litman said.

One agency official who asked to remain anonymous said if OMB issues the guidelines outlined in the draft as policy agencies would stop using Web sites because of the burdens imposed by a strict interpretation of the Federal Records and Paperwork Reduction acts.

"Whoever issued these guidelines has not entered the Information Age " the official said. "While we support the Privacy Act at the same time the broad way they have interpreted that [is] going to restrict information going back and forth."

Still another official who asked to remain anonymous said many people think the existing legislation can be adapted to this new technology under the right circumstances.

The draft states:

* Agency resources shall be used to support only those Web sites directly related to the agency's mission.

* Agencies shall not intentionally collect and maintain electronic-mail addresses unless a public notice of such collection is made stating the purpose and authority for the collection and the intended uses of the data. (This requirement does not include the automatic accumulation of e-mail addresses resulting from the use of "listserv" software.)

* Agencies must provide alternate means of access for all information that is posted to an agency Web site.

* An agency's Web site shall not be the only source of any item of agency information. The record copy shall exist in a format and location that is readily identifiable and is appropriate for access and preservation.

* The decision to disclose information should be consistent with other agency disclosure decisions.

* Each agency shall establish an oversight body to exercise management and to control content and must ensure that adequate resources are available to maintain the program.

Schlarman said OMB was formulating a policy because of concerns generated by a 1993 court case Armstrong v. Executive Office of the President. In that case a journalist sued the White House to prevent the destruction of tapes that were the backup for White House communication during the Iran-Contra scandal. The judge ruled that e-mail records must be maintained just as paper records are under the Federal Records Act.

"If we don't do something about this we're going to have a federal judge write it for us " he said.

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