When it comes to electronic documents and their management over time, one of the key points to consider is digital preservation. Digital preservation is a process that preserves the integrity of electronic documents over time, ensuring that their legal and evidentiary value remains unaltered for as long as necessary.
In some cases, digital preservation is a legal requirement that cannot be waived, but in general, it is the best way for companies and professionals to ensure the evidentiary value of electronic documents and protect their business. Therefore, even in the absence of specific obligations, being able to rely on an adequately structured digital preservation process represents a guarantee and an added value.
What is digital preservation?
When we talk about digital preservation, we are referring to a process that has the ultimate goal of preserving the fundamental qualities that characterize an electronic document and that, as established by art. 20 of the CAD (Digital Administration Code), are essential to ensure its evidentiary value over time. These objective characteristics identified by the legislation are:
These concepts may seem a bit abstract, but they actually refer to elements that are much more tangible and stringent than they appear at first sight. In fact, unlike paper documents, IT documents can be extremely volatile, precisely because they are made up of sequences of bits: as we all know, even inadvertently modifying, damaging, or deleting a file is unfortunately a real risk.
Therefore, when we talk about certain types of IT documents, such as a contract or an invoice, it’s essential to be able to count on the fact that those documents maintain their authenticity and do not undergo undue transformations, whether intentional or accidental. In addition, to maintain its usefulness and validity, each document must remain accessible and legible for as long as necessary: knowing where your documents are at all times and being certain that you can always retrieve and consult them correctly is essential to be able to use them, in the event of litigation or when subject to checks controls by the governing authorities.
Storage and Preservation: Let’s be clear
So, to preserve a computer document, isn’t it enough to keep it on your system once it has been produced or received? The answer is no. When we produce a document, we certainly keep it on our systems or in our management system for a certain period of time, especially since we may need to consult it frequently and therefore it can be useful to have it on hand. This phase, in which the document is “stored” for a short period of time, but ready to be retrieved and used when needed, is called storage. This is the same as keeping paper documents on the shelf behind your desk that you need to view quickly.
However, as time passes, some projects close and new ones open, documents accumulate and we no longer need to consult them frequently: the risk is that they are not looked after properly, are lost, or damaged unintentionally. So, the most logical step is to identify the documents that are still important, especially for legal purposes, but not necessary for everyday business, and to place them in a safe and secure area of the office, accessible only to authorized personnel: this is the proper way to preserve them.
The purpose of preservation in general, and of digital preservation specifically, is to secure documents for a medium to long period of time in a secure environment from which they can be retrieved when needed, following well-structured and traceable procedures.
When is digital preservation mandatory and for which documents?
As we have already mentioned, in some cases, digital preservation is a legal requirement, which companies and professionals cannot avoid. In particular, according to the Italian law it is compulsory to preserve documents of fiscal or tax relevance, such as invoices (issued and received), purchase orders, and accounting books such as VAT registers, company books, inventory books, or journal books, as well as all declarations relevant for VAT purposes, for at least 10 years. In the event of audits by the tax authorities, these documents must be kept until the end of the audit, i.e. even beyond the minimum limit of 10 years.
Furthermore, let’s not forget contracts, for which the Civil Code prescribes that they must be kept for at least 10 years, to be counted from the moment in which the legal effects of the contracts themselves cease. The Italian document LUL (Libro Unico del Lavoro) can also be produced and stored digitally and must be kept for at least 5 years.
Finally, it may be useful to keep documents in the preservation system for a longer period than the minimum period prescribed by the rules, in relation to specific needs and purposes of companies and always in compliance with the GDPR rules on the processing of personal data.
How to properly implement a digital preservation process
Theoretically, the digital preservation of documents can be done in house. In practice, however, the issue is not so simple, because creating a preservation system that complies with industry standards, as well as being efficient and secure, requires a large investment in financial resources, technology, and expertise.
The best way to do this is to rely on a specialist preservation provider who offers an outsourced digital preservation service and has high standards of quality, reliability, and security.
In fact, only a specialized preservation provider can guarantee that a digital preservation system is based on infrastructures capable of ensuring, first and foremost, the logical and physical security of the electronic documents entrusted to him. The existence of international standards and certifications, which require preservation providers to undergo periodic audits, is a guarantee for users of these services.
However,digital preservation is a complex process that requires the synergistic use of multiple competencies. It is not just a matter of IT security; it is essential to have a service with the appropriate skills in digital archiving, personal data processing and management, and tax and regulatory compliance.
In fact, the processes of creation, management, and preservation of electronic documents are highly regulated and there are different authorities that can legislate on the matter, also depending on the particular types of existing documents. If there are minimum requirements common to all electronic documents, which in Italy are currently established by the Agenzia per l’Italia digitale (Agency for Digital Italy), it must be considered that each type of document could be subject to further, more specific rules: this applies to many types of documents, such as electronic administrative documents, tax and fiscal documents, and health documents.
For this reason, it is more advantageous, as well as efficient and secure, to rely on an outsourced preservation provider who has a variety of professionals who specialize in these different aspects and who can ensure a well-rounded view of the many aspects that make up a digital preservation process.
Why digital preservation is so important
As we have seen, digital preservation, in addition to being mandatory in many cases, is an indispensable process in the document lifecycle. In fact, it is the only way to ensure the evidentiary consolidation of electronic documents and to preserve their validity and enforceability against third parties over time. This is the only way to protect against third parties, whether they are suppliers, customers, or regulators.
In addition, document preservation is also important because it allows you to build a “memory” of your business and keep track of your activities over the years, constituting a real asset that can be used profitably in the study and design of business strategies.