@INFO.POLICY

What will happen to Clinton's online records?

Robert Gellman

Bill Clinton put the White House on the Internet. What happens to the Clinton administration's Internet materials when he leaves office? This question raises some complicated and touchy issues.

Let's begin by assuming that a Republican will succeed Clinton. I make that assumption because it is the most troublesome of several scenarios for the Internet transition. An even worse scenario, not possible in the next election, would be an incoming president having defeated the incumbent.

The controlling law, the Presidential Records Act, was written long before the Internet became a mass medium. It says that all presidential records belong to the United States, and it prevents a president from destroying any records without the approval of the archivist.

Although the law does not address Web sites, it clearly covers any records on a site. But it says nothing about providing continuing online access.

Like many records laws, this one assumes that records exist on paper or as other hard copy. The government owns presidential records, and the papers themselves are supposed to end up in a presidential library. Libraries take years to fund and build, and papers take years to sort and index. The Web is immediate.

What happens in the time between the end of the administration and the opening of the presidential library? The Web materials have been accessible for years. If they are removed when Clinton leaves office, there will be a direct and immediate loss. Waiting years for the Web materials to re-emerge would be a hardship for students, researchers, historians and reporters.

Another transition question is: What is left behind? A departing president usually takes all his papers, and the new president enters a swept-clean White House. What happens to the Web site? Will the incoming administration have to start a new site from scratch?

Some elements on the White House Web site are nonpolitical and are likely to remain. For example, there may be no reason to remove the links to other agencies. The White House history and tours section might also survive. Historical documents are keepers, as well. Whether the new White House would or could retain the look of the Clinton Web site is more debatable.

Some current materials would be rapidly or immediately replaced. For example, the new administration would surely follow the pattern started by Clinton and put its own press briefings on the Internet. The Clinton press briefings, which are available today, would probably disappear from public view.

It is difficult to see why a new president from a different party would want to keep materials from his predecessor. In any event, the new president would have no choice if the outgoing president purged the records.

What happens to the list of online subscribers to White House press releases? Does the list belong to the outgoing administration? If so, it could take the new administration months or years to build a similar list. Removing the subscription list would be a shrewd tactic to undermine the new administration's ability to get its message directly to interested voters.

The problem extends beyond the White House. Cabinet departments will have new heads, and Cabinet Web sites will have new contents. Will the old contents disappear forever, or will they be stored somewhere? The problems will not arise over routine agency documents and resources, but the agendas and speeches are vulnerable.

New for the Net

The next presidential transition will be the first of the Internet era. It would be tragic if all online materials from the outgoing administration disappeared from public view.

The National Archives and Records Administration, which oversees presidential libraries, might step into the void. But it is difficult to imagine an agency under new management being willing to spend time and resources to maintain the continuity of public access to politically sensitive materials left by the previous administration.

What should be done to handle the transition? It would be helpful if the Clinton library were to open a Web site the day the Clinton administration ends. That is where the records belong. If not, someone ought to establish a mirror site in the interim.

Whatever the new and old presidents and NARA do, their actions will set precedents.

Robert Gellman is a Washington privacy and information policy consultant. His e-mail address is rgellman@cais.com.

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