Sunday, July 13, 2003

Court records: On the Wild Wild Web

Balance access, privacy

A controversy over a Butler County Web site is the latest skirmish in a national debate over public information vs. personal privacy in the online era. Last week, two judges caused an uproar by ordering Domestic Relations cases taken off the county clerk of courts' Web site, in order to protect privacy in child support cases.

In a free society, it is vital to keep public records open and available. But the Web has made Americans vulnerable to possible misuse of sensitive personal information that can be freely, quickly accessed by anyone. Where do you draw the line?

If anybody knows, it's former Hamilton County Clerk of Courts Jim Cissell, now probate judge, who gained national prominence for putting records on the Web. Cissell, on two state Supreme Court panels studying this, told the Enquirer the consensus is: Court documents that are unsealed should be posted on the Web.

But as the Cleveland Plain Dealer put it last year, is this a public service or a public nuisance? While various states and counties have placed restrictions on what data goes online, Hamilton County opened Pandora's Box wide, posting essentially everything. The raw documents can reveal embarrassing personal details on divorce, child support, domestic violence, medical or financial woes, you name it - unless you're influential or savvy enough to get it sealed.

Such records always have been available, but you had to go the courthouse during business hours, presumably looking like you were engaged in a legitimate pursuit. As Cissell says, personal data can be found elsewhere on the Web, but it takes more sophistication to ferret it out.

Laying it all out on official county sites makes it easy - and not only for nosy neighbors or casual voyeurs who get a thrill by surfing for dirt on acquaintances or strangers. It could help scam artists seeking victims for identity theft. And it could help criminals bent on robbery - or worse - with photos or floor plans of a home.

State Rep. Steve Driehaus, D-Cincinnati, drafted a bill last year that would require clerks of court to edit out sensitive data before posting documents online, as federal courts do. He argued that by posting on the Web, courts are essentially "publishing" documents instead of just making them available. It's an excellent point, yet Driehaus' bill died quickly.

But the conflict remains, and Ohio should find a balance between access and privacy. As Cissell has pointed out, it may be necessary to redefine what a "public record" is. As technology advances, some basic concepts of the law must adjust, or they will produce unintended consequences and fail serve the public interest.

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