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Obama Signs Modernized Federal Records Act

First update for digital age addresses electronic documents.

President Obama the day before Thanksgiving signed a set of amendments to the 1950 Federal Records Act that modernize the definition of a federal record to include electronic documents.

H.R. 1233 complements ongoing efforts by the National Archives and Records Administration and the Office of Management and Budget to implement Obama’s 2011 Memorandum on Managing Government Records.

The bipartisan bill was co-sponsored by House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Darrell Issa, R-Calif., and Ranking Member Elijah Cummings, D-Md., along with Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee Chairman Tom Carper, D-Del., and Ranking Member Tom Coburn, R-Okla.

David Ferriero, archivist of the United States, said in a statement that he welcomed “this bipartisan effort to update the nation’s records laws for the 21st Century....[for] shining a spotlight on the challenges that so many federal agencies and presidential administrations have faced in managing their electronic records.”

The first statutory change in the law since it was passed in 1950:

  • Confirms that federal electronic records will be transferred to the National Archives in electronic form;
  • Grants the archivist of the United States final determination as to what constitutes a federal record;
  • Authorizes the early transfer of permanent electronic federal and presidential records to the National Archives, while legal custody remains with the agency or the president;
  • Clarifies the responsibilities of federal government officials when using non-government email systems;
  • Empowers the National Archives to safeguard original and classified records from unauthorized removal, and;
  • Codifies procedures by which former and incumbent presidents review presidential records for constitutional privileges, rather than relying on an executive order that may change under future presidential administrations.

The definition of an electronic record has generated controversy in recent years when it emerged that Internal Revenue Service and Environmental Protection Agency officials used personnel email and instant messages to conduct business.

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