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Doctors sue over Net privacy

In the latest battle over public information online, a doctors' union has sued a California agency over its practice of posting physicians' addresses on the Web.

    In the latest skirmish over making public information available on the Net, a doctors' union has sued a California regulatory agency over its practice of listing physicians' addresses online.

    The suit, filed by the Union of American Physicians and Dentists, challenges the Medical Board of California over its practice of listing licensed physicians' "address of record" on its Web site. The medical board oversees the state's 104,000 medical practitioners.

    Since May, the agency has posted contact information for state doctors on a national online database. But after receiving complaints, it agreed to stop listing street addresses, at least temporarily.

    A spokeswoman said the agency is required by law to make doctors' addresses available to the public, and may resume doing so via the Internet. She added that the same information is available by calling the medical board's hot line.

    But Gary Robinson, executive director of the doctors' union, disputed the agency's claims. "We believe that the law does not require them to give out this information, and in some cases precludes them from giving it," he said. He added that even if the law does require doctors' addresses to be public, providing them over the Internet poses risks that make the practice reckless.

    "Because of the technology with the Internet, you can download things and use the information to invade the privacy of doctors," he said. "There are far more possibilities of abuses than with the old system."

    The suit, filed yesterday in San Francisco Superior Court, is the latest example of people objecting to public information being made available on the Net.

    A recent California law mandating that campaign contributions be posted on the Internet had to be amended to remove donors' addresses after opponents said the information would threaten individuals' privacy. Under California law, the addresses of most donors must be made available to the public at the Secretary of State's office. Courts in a number of states, including California, are also toying with the idea of posting court documents online.

    Privacy advocates argue that making public information available digitally allows private companies to cull records from different sources and cross-reference them, providing a dossier of an individual's private information such as medical history, employer, and finances.

    "One of the issues raised by this lawsuit is what is the [medical] board's responsibility vis-a-vis the Net?" said Candis Cohen, a spokeswoman for the agency. "Is there a difference between being able to get [information over the phone] and being able to pull it up on the Net?"

    Robinson, of the Union of American Physicians and Dentists, said that many doctors, such as those who work at prisons, have no choice but to list their residential information as their address of record.

    "As far as doctors giving out their home addresses," Robinson said, "we feel the public's right to know is pretty small."