Public Fear of Privacy Invasion Via the Internet Is Emboldening Traditional Foes of Open Government to Gut Access Laws

Article excerpt

The phantom menace?

Is the Information Age killing freedom of information? At first blush, that's a ludicrous question. The Internet, CD-ROMs, searchable databases, and data-mining software now give anyone from an investigative journalist to a fed-up taxpayer with a home computer the power to access vast amounts of public information in ways never imagined when states were drafting the first freedom of information (FOI) laws three decades ago.

Back then, getting public information meant travelling to the courthouse or city hall and thumbing through stacks of musty papers. Now it's available with a few keystrokes, often over the Internet. Want to copy those records? In the old days, photocopies might cost 25 cents or more for every single page. Now, a city's entire tax roll can be downloaded in seconds to a diskette that retails for 39 cents. All this must be good for FOI, right?

Not necessarily, say a growing number of journalists and open-government activists. "I would have to say that overall we are losing ground on freedom of information," says Jane Kirtley, executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, based in Arlington, Va. "The promise of electronic record delivery opening access like we've never had in 150 years is being overshadowed by this obsession with privacy, or what is being perceived as privacy."

Throughout the United States, FOI activists agree, open-government laws are under siege and many of the reasons why can be traced right back to the computer.

"More and more and more records that were traditionally open are now being closed, and the reason is technology. Now that people can actually use these records and they're open to everyone, the public has gotten the crap scared out of them," says Lucy Daglish, a Minneapolis attorney who is a director of the National Freedom of Information Coalition and former Society of Professional Journalist (SPJ) national FOI chairwoman.

Even as Americans bring computers into their homes and go online with increasing frequency, it seems, fear of the Web's dark side the potential for stalking, identity theft, fraud, and invasion of privacy is weakening the public's traditionally strong support for FOI.

As recently as 1992, voters in Florida by an 82% majority added the right to see government documents to the state constitution. Now, a Florida- based FOI expert says support is slipping because of privacy fears.

"About five years ago, I really did see a dramatic shift in public opinion about access issues," says Sandra F. Chance, director of the Brechner Center for Freedom of Information at the University of Florida.

As a result, FOI watchers say, the bureaucrats, elected officials, and special-interest groups who never wanted open-government laws in the first place are finding it easier to place more kinds of public information off- limits. "Privacy as the rallying cry for secrecy has really caught on," says Kirtley, "and the politicians and the legislators have not been unaware of that. It's an argument that really resonates with the public in a way that, say, claiming national security as a reason to close access did not."

Computers work against open government in other ways, too. Once local and state governments began gathering their records in electronic databases, they quickly realized there was money to be made by turning management of the information over to private firms. These companies, FOI advocates charge, frequently strangle access by charging exorbitant fees or treating public information as if it were proprietary data.

"Privatization is just killing information access," says Rosemary Armao, Anne Arundel County bureau chief for The (Baltimore) Sun. "Already there are whole states where information that was available drivers' licenses, vital statistics, the driving records of school bus drivers no longer is available."

Many public officials also have learned to use computers not to speed up the process of turning over records but to grind it to a halt. …

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