Page one of today's Washington Times---above the fold---has a fascinating story indicting the White House for failing to disclose that it will collect and retain material posted by visitors to its pages on social networking sites like Facebook and YouTube. The story is fascinating because so much attention is being paid to it. (It was first reported, as an aside at least, by Major Garrett on Fox News a month ago.)
The question here is not over the niceties of the Presidential Records Act, which may or may not require collection and storage of the data. It's over people's expectations when they use the Internet.
Marc Rotenberg, president of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, said the White House signaled that it would insist on open dealings with Internet users and, in fact, should feel obliged to disclose that it is collecting such information.
Of course, the White House is free to disclose or announce anything it wants. It might be nice to disclose this particular data practice. But is it really a breach of privacy---and, through failure to notify, transparency---if there isn't a distinct disclosure about this particular data collection?
Let's talk about what people expect when they use the Internet and social networking sites. Though the Internet is a gigantic copying machine, some may not know that data is collected online. They may imagine that, in the absence of notice, the data they post will not be warehoused and redistributed, even though that's exactly what the Internet does.
There can be special problems when it is the government collecting the information. The White House's "email@example.com" tip line was concerning because it asked Americans to submit information about others. There is a history of presidents amassing "enemies" lists. But this is not the complaint with White House tracking of data posted on its social networking sites.
People typically post things online because they want publicity for those things---often they want publicity for the fact that they are the ones posting, too. When they write letters, they give publicity to the information in the letter and the fact of having sent it. When they hold up signs, they seek publicity for the information on the signs, and their own role in publicizing it.
How strange that taking note of the things people publicize is taken as a violation of their privacy. And failing to notify them of the fact they will be observed and recorded is a failure of transparency.
America, for most of what you do, you do not get "notice" of the consequences. Instead, in the real world and online, you grown-ups are "on notice" that information you put online can be copied, stored, retransmitted, and reused in countless ways. Aside from uses that harm you, you have little recourse against that after you have made the decision to release information about yourself.
The White House is not in the wrong here. If there's a lesson, it's that people are responsible for their own privacy and need to be aware of how information moves in the online environment.
Anger about Obama's many "czars" is rising, reports the Washington Post:
On paper, they are special advisers, chairmen of White House boards, special envoys and Cabinet agency deputies, asked by the president to guide high-priority initiatives. But critics call them "czars" whose powers are not subject to congressional oversight, and their increasing numbers have become a flash point for conservative anger at President Obama.
Critics of the proliferation of czars say the White House uses the appointments to circumvent the normal vetting process required for Senate confirmation and to avoid congressional oversight.
I have tended not to take concern over "czars" very seriously. After all, advisers to the president can't exercise any power that the president doesn't have (or assume without response from Congress or the courts). And I figured the White House doesn't call people "czars," that's just a media term, so it's not really fair to blame the White House for what reporters say.
But then, thanks to crack Cato intern Miles Pope, I discovered that the White House does call its czars czars, at least informally. A few examples:
In an interview on April 15, 2009 Obama said, "The goal of the border czar is to help coordinate all the various agencies that fall under the Department of Homeland Security..."
In a March 11, 2009, briefing, press secretary Robert Gibbs turned to "address the czar question for a minute, because I think I've been asked in this room any number of times if the czars in our White House to deal with energy and health care had too much power."
On March 11, 2009 Vice President Biden said, "Today I'm pleased to announce that President Obama has nominated as Director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy -- our nation's drug czar -- Gil Kerlikowske..."
More examples here.
So they do like czar imagery. So have at them, critics.
And while I said that the advisers have no real power, there's at least one who does -- a real czar -- the "pay czar," Kenneth Feinberg. He "has sole discretion to set compensation for the top 25 employees" of large companies receiving bailouts, and his "decisions won’t be subject to appeal.” Now that's a czar.
After all of the rancor last week over his planned back-to-school address, it was predictable that in the end President Obama would offer a largely non-controversial speech about working hard and staying in school. If he sticks to the text released today, that is pretty much what he will do. Unfortunately, whether or not that was his original intent – and no one knows for sure but the President and his advisors – many Obama supporters will likely use the relatively staid final product as grounds to smear people concerned about the speech as right-wing kooks or out-of-control partisans. At the very least, such an outcome would be in keeping with a lot of the email I've gotten since the story first broke. But it will miss several critical points:
- No matter how innocuous the content of the speech, this could certainly be an address with very political goals, intended to cast the president in the warm glow of a man who just cares about kids. From kissing babies, to photo-op reading sessions featuring cute tikes on classroom floors, this could be just another instance of the old practice of using children as props for political gain. And how presumptuous of the president to make himself – rather than the children, their teachers, and their schools – the center of attention on what is the first day of school for millions of kids. Finally, add the parts of the speech that sound like the President patting himself on the back for overcoming difficulties as a youth, and the speech could easily have political aims.
- Many people feared, thanks to politically and ideologically suggestive lesson guides created by the U.S. Department of Education, that the speech would be an effort at indoctrination. Critically, it was only after very loud, initial outrage that the Department made changes to the guides and the White House announced it would release the text of the speech ahead of time. Yet administration defenders act like everyone knew from the outset that the speech would just be about working hard and staying in school. And who knows what the speech might have looked like had there not been so negative an initial reaction.
- Despite its generally innocuous tone, the speech does contain some controversial political and ideological assertions, including that “setting high standards, supporting teachers and principals, and turning around schools” is the job of the federal government. Also, the things the President highlights as worthy aspirations are disproportionately government and non-profit work. And then there’s this self-aggrandizing assertion: “Your families, your teachers, and I are doing everything we can to make sure you have the education you need to answer these questions. I’m working hard to fix up your classrooms and get you the books, equipment and computers you need to learn.”
- Ultimately, no matter what happens now that the speech has been published, one thing cannot be ignored or spun: When government controls education, wrenching political and social conflict is inevitable. Americans are very diverse – ideologically, ethnically, morally, religiously – but they all have to support a single system of government schools. As a result, they are constantly forced to fight to have their values and desires respected, and the losers inevitably have their liberty infringed. In this case, reasonable people who want their children to hear the President must fight it out with equally reasonable people who do not want their children to watch the speech in school. It's a situation completely at odds with a free society, but as we have seen not just with the current conflict, but seemingly endless battles over history textbooks, the teaching of human origins, sex education, and on and on, it is inevitable when government runs the schools. Which is why the most important lesson to be learned from this presidential-address donnybrook is that Americans need educational freedom. We need universal school choice or crippling conflicts like this will keep on coming, liberty will continue to be compromised, and our society will be ripped farther and farther apart.
"[O]nce it is clear that a bill will be coming to the president’s desk, the White House will post the bill online," White House spokesman Nick Shapiro told New York Times reporter Katherine Seelye for her June 22 story on President Obama's "Sunlight Before Signing" campaign pledge. “This will give the American people a greater ability to review the bill, often many more than five days before the president signs it into law.”
The story, titled "White House Changes the Terms of a Campaign Pledge About Posting Bills Online," was about the White House effort to walk back from President Obama's campaign pledge to post bills he receives for five days before signing them.
When the New York Times published the story, five bills had been presented to the president and were awaiting his signature. Four more were presented to him after the story's publication. All nine are now law.
And for the life of me, I can't find where any of them have been posted on Whitehouse.gov. Surely it was clear to the White House that the five bills it had and the four soon to come would reach the president's desk.
I disagree with arguments for releasing President Obama from his pledge to sign bills only after he has posted them for a full five days after receiving them. It would have the same effects as the 72-hour hold the Sunlight Foundation is seeking from Congress — also a welcome legislative process reform.
And it's becoming more clear that the five-day promise could be implemented. At this point, only one of 39 bills that the president has signed has been posted for five days in advance. (The DTV Delay Act was actually not held five days after formal presentment, but the White House posted it after the final version had passed Congress.) Twenty-four other bills have been held at the White House five days or more before the President has signed them. They just haven't been posted.
To repeat, over 60% of the legislation coming out of Congress waits five days for the president's signature as a matter of course. The only thing preventing implementation of the president's promise as to these bills is the White House's inexplicable reluctance to do what it says it will do.
Last week, I complained loudly that the "Speeches" section of the Whitehouse.gov Web site had only four speeches on it, the most recent coming at the end of February.
And, voila, today the site is transformed. A new "speeches and remarks" page at that location has a 28-page list of official utterances from President Obama since he took office.
Does it matter a lot that people can now more easily find what President Obama has said? It kinda does. Americans will go a little more often right to the source rather than relying on media interpretations of what the president is saying. In the aggregate, we'll have a better informed, slightly more skeptical, and more empowered populace.
Kudos to the folks at the White House for making the change. In retrospect, it appears that some arcane difference between "speeches" and "remarks" kept many important things the president says off the "Speeches" page. For my part, a 6,500-hundred word oration on national security delivered from behind a lectern is a speech, but the White House calls such a thing "remarks."