There was a good column in the online version of the Wall Street Journal (I think that’s a permalink) covering the waterfront on one of my favorite issues: the dilemma of open government in a wired world. (Hat tip to Michael Zimmer.) All sorts of public records that used to be available only to those who took the trouble to go down to the county courthouse are now online, often indexed and searchable (though not always easily so, as Tim recently pointed out). As the story puts it:
Property deeds, marriage and divorce records, court files, motor-vehicle information and tax documents are increasingly being digitized, and contain a wealth of information that few of us would want online: Social Security numbers, birth dates, maiden names and images of our signatures. [snip]
The records being put online are public, and available – sensitive information and all — to anyone who goes down to the courthouse or county seat. And many of them have already been compiled and digitized by data warehouses, who often make them available to marketers and real-estate professionals. Open records are a longstanding American tradition; so too is a hold-your-nose acceptance that commercial entities will try to make a profit by exploiting that openness.
But at the same time, it’s too simplistic to say that just because records are available by going to a government building and talking to a clerk, we shouldn’t worry that they’re now available through some Web sleuthing. Sometimes a difference of degree is so significant that it may as well be a difference of kind …
Indeed. The article acknowledges that recalibrating the balance of what should be open and what should not will be hard work. Again: indeed. I’d argue that we have to rethink every existing assumption about government transparency, comprehensively, to deal with the reality of the internet age. The proposed federal civil procedure rule requiring redactions in certain court filings is just a teeny tiny first step (it’s Rule 5.2, the first of these proposed amendments, which seems almost sure to be adopted).