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Sounding off: Privacy vs. free speech

The two sides face off at a high-profile computer conference, debating a widening rift over how public records should be made available on the Internet.

SAN FRANCISCO--Privacy and free-speech advocates faced off Friday at a high-profile computer conference here, debating a widening rift over how public records should be made available on the Internet.

For years, records such as voter registration data, dog license information and most court filings have been freely available. Someone hoping to cull information from those files had to simply go down to the courthouse or agency in person and request the records.

But as it becomes easier to wade through--and search across--public records that contain personal data, privacy advocates are warning that your neighbors can learn all your secrets with just a few clicks of the mouse.

The two sides in the debate over availability of public-records databases staged their arguments at the Computers Freedom & Privacy conference. Privacy experts said they fear the exposure will lead to increased identity theft, stalking or worse. Free-speech advocates, on the other hand, maintain that open records are an integral part of maintaining a free society.

The conflict is more than academic. It comes as court systems are deciding how much access to provide to court records. The National Center for State Courts is accepting comments on the issue for two more weeks and is holding a public hearing in May.

On Friday, Beth Givens, director of the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse, warned that increased access to public records, if left unchecked, could have dire consequences, including discouraging people from voting and participating in court proceedings. She also feared creating what she called a "dossier society," where anyone can do a Web search on anybody else and learn intimate details about things such as their divorce, voting habits or criminal records.

"Individuals could be judged on information from these allegations," she said.

To counteract those threats, Givens suggested several solutions, including posting only edited files or creating two tiers of privacy, which, for example, would allow the court dockets to appear online but would make the contents of a court filing available only to those who physically go to the courthouse.

However, Rebecca Daugherty, of the Reporters Committee for the Freedom of the Press, said that creating different levels of access would be the start of a slide down a slippery slope where only a few people have rights to information.

"If you lose parts of the First Amendment, you're going to lose them forever," said Daugherty.

For example, Daugherty said reporters have used private--and potentially embarrassing--details contained in public records to expose abuses in foster-care systems and farm subsidy programs.

"You've got to have them out there to change the system," Daugherty said.

Carrie Gardner, a representative of the American Library Association, agreed. "I encourage you to remember the role of information in our society," Gardner said, adding that restricting access is a setup "for a more totalitarian system."