Local courthouses are full of all kinds of interesting information: child-custody cases, petitions for divorce on grounds of everything from adultery to abuse, people's entire financial histories.
The information's always been public - but it hasn't always been easy for casual observers to get. That's about to change.
Courts across the country are moving toward pouring their musty documents - and all the juicy details they contain - onto the Internet. The move toward a more cost-effective and efficient storage system will mean that, instead of a picket fence, people will be able to peer over a computer screen to snoop in their neighbors' private lives.
While some court districts have rejected the open-access storage system as too invasive, the trend is provoking a national debate over the meaning of "public" and "private."
"I think every jurisdiction will have the question planted squarely in front of them within the next couple of years," says Toni McLaughlin of the Administrative Office of the Courts in New Jersey, the first state to actively consider putting divorce records on the Internet.
Not that they aren't public already, but Ms. McLaughlin says they're "public in a small way." Right now, anyone can go to a courthouse and look at the records, but that takes time and shoe leather. "Somebody can't sit at their PC and look at them, so there's a safety," she says.
But that safety could disappear in cyberspace, if anyone is able to download personal records from the comfort of their own home. And that's raising significant concerns among privacy advocates.
"Even though they're available to the public, putting them on the Internet does increase vulnerability," says Robert Ellis Smith, publisher of Privacy Journal in Providence, R.I.
"The courthouse records administrators could keep a log of the disclosures," as a means of tracking who's been looking up what, he adds. "But on the Internet ... people can use a fake name, download the information, cut and paste it, and recirculate it vindictively."
But that's what public means
But freedom-of-information advocates contend that concerns that the records will be misused miss the point. They argue that the Internet is the perfect way to ensure every citizen's right of access to public records.
"It seems to me that we should see Internet storage of records as not really different in quality or kind than other kinds of storage," says Linda Steiner, chairwoman of the Department of Journalism and Media studies at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J.
"If someone in Kenya wanted to research a file in Iowa, they'd have to buy a plane ticket and fly to local courthouse that contains those records," Ms. Steiner says. "As a rule, it makes more sense to define 'public' not in terms of local geography."
Other experts also argue that putting court records on the Internet will make it easier for the public to monitor the judicial system.
"Maybe we do want divorce records made public [on the Internet] to make sure judges are following the law and the court system is properly functioning," says David Sorkin, a professor at The John Marshall Law School in Chicago.
But others argue that the easy access will also lead to far greater intrusions of privacy. Some people might delve into documents out of idle curiosity, others, out of vengeance.
"The data amassed about your life can be used against you in a
harmful way," says Kim Alexander, executive director of the California Voter Foundation. "There is information in your divorce court records you may not want your employer to know."
In response to these privacy concerns, courts throughout the nation and the world are hesitant to take advantage of the electronic format that would save them time and money. Cameras and video Web-casting are still banned from several state courts, as well as all of the federal courts.
The Supreme Court also recently upheld a California law that bans access to police records from companies that sell the computerized information commercially.
Justice, in real time
Nonetheless, some courts are eager to use the new technology, and want to make it easy for the public to see all court proceedings.
In Florida, for example, the state Supreme Court airs live videos of its trials over the Internet on its Web site. Other courts provide commercial bankruptcy filings on Web sites.
In February, New Jersey courts will let the public comment on a rule that recommends that divorce records be filed on the Internet within two years. Some observers are expecting some pretty vehement objections, especially from among those who have files down at the courthouse.
"I feel sorry for the people who've gone through divorces, not realizing it's going to put a window into a very private and hard part of their lives," says Evan Hendricks, editor of Privacy Times.
One solution is to strike agreements locally, instead of forcing statewide mandates.
"It has to be an issue that particular communities debate and resolve," says David Sobel, general counsel for Electronic Privacy Information Center. "A community might decide that the details of a divorce case do not really enlighten the public about the function of the court system and therefore should not be disclosed. It should be on a case-by-case basis, and decided locally, by specific communities."
So far, more and more personal information is finding its way onto the Web, which is making many people uneasy, says Ms. Alexander.
"It may very well lead to incurring resentment towards government and government agencies," Alexander says. "I think that the American people are just beginning to wake up and realize that there's a ton of information being compiled on them."
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society