Legal group takes issue with the agency’s instant messaging policies, has FOIA requested logs from an April council meeting

Cause of Action Institute, a conservative legal group in Washington, D.C., is suing NOAA in attempt to obtain instant message records sent by employees who attended a New England Fishery Management Council meeting in April.

At that meeting, council officials approved an amendment to expand the use of industry-funded at-sea monitors in the region’s herring fishery — a controversial topic that the legal group filed a lawsuit over last year. That lawsuit was ultimately dismissed by a district court.

The group alleges NOAA officials discussed the amendment in detail over Google Chat, a now-defunct Gmail-based instant message system. According to a 2012 NOAA document detailing the agency’s communications, all instant messaging conversations “will be considered ‘off the record’ and will not be recorded in anyway [sic],” per a decision by NOAA General Counsel.

“NOAA appears to have created an internal messaging platform to hide records from public disclosure,” said Julie Smith, Cause of Action Institute vice president. “Any directive to make certain communications be considered ‘off-the-record’ clearly violates transparency laws. Americans have a right to know how decisions are made that could jeopardize their livelihoods.”

In the now discontinue Google Chat feature, users could select the "off the record" option to stop the system from logging their instant messages.

Google Chat, which was discontinued by Google on June 26 but replaced with their similar Google Hangouts system, included an “off the record” option that any user could activate to stop conversation recording. It’s unclear if NOAA employees used this feature to prevent records of those conversations or if logs exist of those conversations but they were informally considered to be off the record.

According to that same NOAA document, instant messages were considered “informal exchanges” and “all official records should be documented appropriately.”

The legal group has reportedly filed two FOIA requests for these communication logs with no results.

Acting Deputy Director for NOAA communication Christopher Vaccaro said that the agency was unable to comment on pending litigation.

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Samuel Hill is the former associate editor for National Fisherman. He is a graduate of the University of Southern Maine where he got his start in journalism at the campus’ newspaper, the Free Press. He has also written for the Bangor Daily News, the Outline, Motherboard and other publications about technology and culture.

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