Mailing lists that make archives of their postings publicly accessible on the internet could be in breach of the Privacy Act, according to an Auckland lawyer.
They could be required to purge their archives or take them out of the public arena, says Russell McVeagh partner Mike Cronin.
Principle nine of the act requires that "an agency that holds personal information shall not keep that information for longer than is required for the purposes for which the information may lawfully be used".
"I think an archive of a mailing list could well be covered under this principle," says Cronin. Few list archives draw attention to the issue and Cronin says administrators should be more aware of their responsibilities under the act.
Mailing lists are different to newsgroups. A newsgroup is by definition its own archive whereas a mailing list has an archive as a secondary function rather than its primary function.
"Think about someone's CV -- if they send it in for a job you can keep it for a while but you have to get rid of it eventually." He says mailing list archives are similar unless the administrator explicitly outlines that to members when they join the list.
One such list is the network operators group (NZNOG) and its archive, which is publicly accessible online.
List administrator Donald Neal says standard practice is to keep archives.
"It's clear from postings that a lot of people don't like the idea of the archives not being there," says Neal.
Neal has been asked to remove postings from the NZNOG archive by Wellington man Julian Angelo, who was the topic of discussion last year for spamming activities. Angelo says he is reformed and he wants the postings removed because potential employers are reading them and not hiring him.
Neal has asked the NZNOG list what it wants to do and, based on a poll of respondents, has left Angelo's postings intact. Members did say Angelo could apologise for his activities to the list and that would, of course, be included in the archive.
Group member Peter Mott, director of website hosting company 2Day Internet, says the integrity of archives is all-important and messages should only be changed for good reason.
"The only time we have ever removed a message from a list archive was when someone posted specific instructions on how to exploit a security issue on one of our servers. I think things have got to be pretty bad before a list admin considers erasing history," says Mott.
Cronin suggests list administrators make sure they tell members when they sign up that their postings will be archived.
Neal says he does that and re-posts a message to list members once a month that includes the statement: "Mailing List Archives: A full archive is available at http://list.waikato.ac.nz/archives/nznog/". A "full archive" would by definition not be purged.
The Privacy Commissioner did not want to comment on the issue.