Monday, July 26, 2010

Government and the Internet--the plot thickens

Today the news is that a website, Wikileaks, has published 90,000 classified documents relating to the war in Afghanistan. This website is dedicated to publishing classified and "leaked" documents. The administration is claiming that this act of making public information that was never intended for public viewing could put American lives and security at stake.

On July 19, the New York Times published an important article by Jeffrey Rosen, a law professor at George Washington University, titled "The Web Means the End of Forgetting." The primary point is that what goes on the Internet stays on the Internet with much potential harm to those who don't think about what they put there. He makes the intriguing point that while we now live in a global village, sharing almost everything with the 6 billion or more other people on this planet, we have not adopted the village's values of "forgive and forget." The consequences to lives now and in the future will be great.

Last Thursday, July 22, the GAO published a document of testimony titled: "Information Management: Challenges in Federal Agencies' Use of Web 2.0 Technologies." It reviewed the issues arising from government agencies using social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter and such uses impact issues such as the Privacy Act of 1974 and the Freedom of Information Act.

On that same day, an article appeared in Federal Computer Week highlighting the Department of Defense's new social media hub where the hundreds of thousands of fans on Facebook pages for the various military departments can get info about social media use by these departments.

Clearly, there is great ferment here. What we are seeing is a convergence of a very important social value of exceptional openness and transparency combining with the technological means of providing that openness. The British found that transparency included the failure to keep Prince Harry's presence in Afghanistan a secret. The US is finding that keeping military secrets is increasingly challenging. Individuals are finding that off-handed or poorly thought out comments or postings may impact their lives and careers forever.

For government and private PIOs and communication leaders, there are no simple answers to this. The public seems to demand complete, unrestricted transparency, and they and the media will cry "cover-up" and "guilty as charged" as soon as they see the slightest hint of reservation about release of information. But there are obviously dangers and concerns with the release, and what do these new channels and forums mean relating to making certain that records are available in compliance with the law?

The law, technology, social values and agency policy all have to come together in a way that is defensible. We are moving in that direction it seems, but it is a bit like watching sausage being made. It's not very pretty. Until we come to some social and policy consensus, there will be much wringing of hands and gnashing of teeth. Jeffrey Rosen's reminder of the role of forgiveness in an earlier and simpler time of village life is important to remember.

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