The roller coaster conversation about public records on the Web

The citizenry and government both come to the wrong conclusions about the ready availability of public records on the Internet. The City of Raleigh, North Carolina and Wake County joined dozens of other communities that have begun integrating crime activity into interactive mapping. Local real estate developers and agents object, believing that “public crime data… will lower housing prices.” Some people are getting acquainted with the meaning of “public records” for the first time through the government Web sites, complaining about an invasion of privacy because others can see their address and name in the Assessor’s records. Alternatively, they embrace access when the records concern people they want to know about, such as sex offenders. Privacy advocates have campaigned to seal criminal records for first-time offenders, which Florida is doing at 3 times the number as 10 years ago, according to this analysis. Even in these cases, law enforcement continues to keep a record of the criminal history.

Public officials sometimes sound defensive when bringing public records into the Internet age, asserting that particular types of personal information isn’t included. Or they remove the documents or data that was once on the Web, as in the case of the El Paso County, Colorado inmate log. The Sheriff has restricted the listing of the criminal charges to classification numbers as a reaction to inmate assaults. If the availability of public records on the Internet isn’t mandated by law, as in the case of the sex offender registries, it’s always subject to being withdrawn.

Agencies could better serve the goal of open government by reducing the number of exemptions to disclosure. The Washington State Attorney General announced a meeting to review the Public Disclosures Act exemptions, which have grown from 10 in 1972 to more than 300 today.

The County Clerk of Oneida County, New York removed land records from its Web site, a promise of her political campaign. Now, she proposes to make document images available online to a handpicked elite, including attorneys (to whom she was speaking when this offer was made), ostensibly because the records are used in the course of their work. You see the basis for redefining the “public” in “public records”, right? Arbitrary. Capricious. Preferential.

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