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Public records: Updates needed

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Friday, Aug. 15, 2014, 8:57 p.m.

Among Lois Lerner's emails that the Internal Revenue Service didn't “lose” is an exchange that highlights a glaring federal open-records pitfall.

The Washington Times reports Ms. Lerner, the former official at the center of the IRS tea-party targeting scandal, asked a tech staffer — “in the middle of what appeared to be a discussion about how to hide information from Congress” — whether instant-message chats were stored. She was told the system didn't store such chats, by default, though individual employees could change settings to store them — but the system's document search wouldn't locate stored chats.

That leaves gaping holes in the results of open-records searches for what The Times calls “key documents that show official decision-making,” which must be stored under laws first passed regarding paper records. And though “(a)gencies appear to have adopted rules for handling email,” The Times found that among 17 federal agencies, only two “had policies requiring instant messages to be stored as official, searchable records.”

Updating both federal record-keeping policies and open-records law to cover instant-message chats, even cellphone text messages, clearly is overdue. As technology and its uses change, so must the rules and laws ensuring that the people can exercise their unchanging right to know their government's business.

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