Posted April 8, 2010 11:45 am by with 1 comment

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A lot of concern circulates about just how much information a company like Google has on individuals and virtually everything else. While it makes me queasy at times as well, I don’t get the same Orwellian feeling about Google as I do about the government and the data they collect. That’s why the White House’s new policies on social media interaction with the public are both interesting and a bit troubling all at once.

The Washington Post reports

Soon it will be much easier to interact with government through tweets, blogs and wikis without forcing federal agencies to jump through the procedural hoops set up by the Paperwork Reduction Act.

As part of the Obama administration’s effort to bring a new level of openness to federal agencies, government lawyers have clarified — sort of — how the PRA will treat the new forms of online interactions between federal agencies and the public.

Sort of, because, as in many government documents, there’s no simple yes or no answer in the memorandum titled “Social Media, Web-Based Interactive technologies, and the Paperwork Reduction Act.”

On the surface this seems like a good thing to possibly cut through bureaucratic red tape and get things done. That can be a good thing. What is giving me the heebie-jeebies is just what potential harm someone can do to himself or herself by having some direct digital interaction with the government.

Think about it. People screw up online all the time. They get fired up and type something they regret then get in the inevitable online pissing contest that does no good for anyone. I’ve been there. I suspect we all have.

Well, what if you have one of these low moments with a government agency and you put something in writing that can be taken in several different ways? What kind of electronic “profile” would you create because you lost your cool in trying to deal with something that makes most people crazy anyway? Talk about online reputation monitoring and management concerns.

So just how does the government intend to “open up” communications online?

Federal wiki pages can encourage interactions between the public and officials at federal agencies without running afoul of the law. (But wikis that are used to gather specific data — like a compliance spreadsheet — are still covered.)

Webinars (considered online public meetings) can happen without triggering the PRA requirements, the document says, along with “blogs, discussion boards, forums, message boards, chat sessions, social networks, and online communities.”

The document warns, however: “If an agency takes the opportunity of a public meeting to distribute a survey, or to ask identical questions of 10 or more attendees, the questions count as an information collection.”

“Government websites that host social media interaction can ask visitors to set customized preferences for layout, color scheme, subject areas and topics without requiring a Form 83-I. The government can seek general commentary from the public without having to justify the effort, according to the document.

“Agencies may offer the public opportunities to provide general comments on discussion topics through other means, including but not limited to social media websites; blogs; microblogs; audio, photo, or video sharing websites; or online message boards (whether hosted on a .gov domain or by a third-party provider).”

General commentary? How wide open is that? And how long will this data be stored? By whom? For what purposes? If people are worried about what Google and others know about us, doesn’t this government “openness” to data collection throw up a red flag too?

I realize there is a lot of conspiracy theorist in my thinking and I may be way off base. I hope I am. I just don’t think it’s the best idea to go into any interaction with any company or government in the electronic age without having both eyes wide open. Heck, things that are supposedly private aren’t really if the government deems so (Patriot Act).

As marketers we understand how communication and data collection has changed dramatically in the past 20 years. Our activities of gathering data to help sell things is annoying to many, including the government at times. What makes anyone think that this new “transparency” won’t have a very serious down side potential in ways we won’t even recognize until it’s too late.

Your thoughts? Am I paranoid or is this something to be concerned about? Hey, did you just say something about me?

  • The paranoia is absolutely warranted. This is as bad, or worse than the previous administration’s classification of acceptable behavior, and legal gymnastics used to excuse things that were most definitely out-of-bounds.

    It will fall under the “Oops, this communication isn’t subject to that law”. Then, some poor sap will have to take it to the Supreme Court, where s/he may finally get justice.