They were once relatively obscure public documents about private matters - available for the nosy and curious who asked for them, but difficult to spread around.
But information such as bankruptcy filings, medical records, and legal depositions - information that people might not want spread around - now routinely finds its way to the Internet. Two cases in point: Feuding neighbors in Maryland have posted legal depositions on the Web for all to see. John F. Kennedy Jr.'s will is on the Web.
Such rapid, widespread distribution has piqued concern about privacy and about beefing up privacy- protection laws. Citizens, lawyers, and politicians alike need to pay closer attention to information that once took considerable effort to find in courthouses but now is just a few easy clicks away on a computer.
That said, certain public records need to stay public, regardless of the speed of their distribution. For the most part, the Internet's democracy-strengthening potential should not be legislated away.
Access to sensitive personal information stirs controversy even off the Web. Take the dispute swirling around a request by The Orlando Sentinel to see autopsy photos of race-car driver Dale Earnhardt, who was killed in a crash last month. The newspaper says it won't publish the photos, but claims they might reveal new information about the cause of death and thus help protect other drivers. Prodded by thousands of e-mails and phone calls, several Florida lawmakers have introduced bills to prohibit their release, although laws already exist to protect such records.
Ultimately, individuals must be more attentive to protecting information they want protected. They can be helped by a new cottage industry helping people protect their privacy on the Internet.
Protecting freedom of information is as important as protecting privacy. That balance must be preserved, while at the same time not taking away the Internet's power to help citizens access information that can help them hold government, and themselves, more accountable.
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor