Who Owns the Emails from Obama's "We the People" Petitions? Answer: Not the People

We're all for open communication between a government and its constituents. But the Obama administration's We the People petition initiative, launched Sept. 1, isn't just giving citizens  a means to get the federal government's attention -- the nut jobs and pranksters have a new outlet as well.
Case in point: one hilarious petition demanding "a vapid, condescending, meaningless, politically safe response to this position" has gotten over 17K signatures (note: it takes 25K signatures in 30 days to get an administration response and 150 signatures to get featured on the site).

This raises two questions: First, how absurd it is that anyone age 13 or older can create a petition on WhiteHouse.gov, and second, who owns the millions of verified emails -- and the right to market to them -- these petitions generate?

For instance, if President Obama wants to send his 2012 election activities to all of these users, would that be legal?

According to the terms of participation, the answer is technically yes. To avoid unwanted emails, do not check the box that signs you up for updates when creating a WhiteHouse.gov account. If you do, the White House can send you email updates on a variety topics. [ See screen shot below. ]

Our next question: If a Republican wins in 2012, will he (or she) inherit these emails? It doesn't appear that way -- but that's not the whole story.

While the White House will not disclose, sell, rent or exchange your email address outside the Executive Office of the President, the privacy section states, "In regards to information that you voluntarily provide the White House, they are legally able to retain it until the end of the current administration. At that point, the data is transferred to the National Archives and Records Administration."

Still, NARA may eventually release that information to the public, "but is required, in accordance with the PRA [ Presidential Records Act ] and the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), to withhold any information that would constitute a clearly unwarranted invasion of personal privacy if released."

That means that if you were one of the people to sign a ridiculous petition, like the one demanding the government to acknowledge extraterrestrial life, that data is owned by the government.  If you're really paranoid, read this "know your rights" post from the Electronic Frontier Foundation.