"Publicly Available" is this year's pink!

When I was a lad, there were plenty of records that were “publicly available.” I put the quote marks in the previous sentence because often, while records might be technically publicly available they were actually stored in a musty basement, behind a locked door, in an unmarked file cabinet in a drawer marked Beware of the Rabid Lemur.

Now we have the Internet, and now records that have always been technically “publically available” have the potential to become actually publicly available. This can be really good or really bad, depending on where you stand. Sex offender registries, convicted felon databases in general, election and ballot initiative monetary contributors – even something as simple as signing a petition supporting a candidate or political position has always been a matter of public record, but now can be a matter of really actually truly public record.

I contend that this is a fundamental shift in the rationale behind public records. It may be the the wisest course of action is to leave the law in place, and simply acknowledge that even though the technology vastly changes the effects of the law, our best course of action is to accept the new world.

Or it may be that it would be wiser to reevaluate “public” record rules in light of this fundamental change.

Two examples from the list I tossed out above: a felony conviction is a matter of public record. Even after the offender has served his sentence, his record of conviction exists, essentially forever. And a petition supporting a particular candidate or referendum issue is a matter of public record as well.

Should those facts – that Joe was convicted of grand theft in 1972 and that he signed a petition supporting a same-sex marriage ballot initiative in 2003 – be ultimately reachable by anyone with Google, from now until the end of time?

What are the alternatives?

It’s impressive how much governmental paperwork is available. You can go and read all of the various studies being done at the behest of the United States Government on various topics, and yet you’ll notice that most everything you see or read will never actually link directly to any sort of respectable, first-hand information like this. Real information is boring. Finding real information, even on the internet, is tedious because things are actually organized into bins that contain bins, each handily labeled so that you can get there in a rational way, rather than using a slap-dash technology like Google.

People don’t find real information because they don’t want it or would rather leave it to someone else to sort through. The “Beware the Lemur” sign only mattered after the other 99% of what was keeping people from doing anything had already been passed.

As for felony convictions, I’m afraid I don’t see a significant downside to letting such information be public. And this comes from someone who thinks felons ought to be allowed to vote while they’re imprisoned.

If someone is a felon, other folks have a right to know that when deciding whether to associate with them. If that makes the felon’s life difficult, well, too bad: maybe he ought to go talking to other felons and convincing the others not to give him a bad reputation.

The petition thing might be a little different. I can see a rationale for keeping this information private for precisely the same reason that we keep votes private. A democracy has a vested interest in keeping itself free from undue influence. How a person votes is certainly a government function, but it is not a matter of public record. I could easily see extending the same logic to other instances of participation in the election process.

The way I see it, we’re just now getting to what it should have been all along. You shouldn’t sign a petition in the first place if you don’t want it to be publicly knowable, really truly publicly knowable, that you did so. In fact, isn’t that the entire purpose of a petition?

Information being on the Internet makes it easier for the truth to come out (whatever the truth is, and on whatever topic), and I can’t help but feel that that’s an unambiguously good thing.

I’m going to agree with you, but take it in a different direction. I think we cast aside way too many people in this country, people who could be useful and productive, and shoehorn them into the lower class simply because they’ve committed a crime. For the majority of crimes committed, I believe the offenders should have less roadblocks in front of them barring them from becoming righteous members of society again.

If there are people in positions of power today who have past indiscretions that have been overlooked, and if the revelation of these indiscretions causes them some discomfort, maybe it will force society to take a more liberal view of the law and criminal offenders. I’m not saying we forgive every crime, but a recognition of how much our laws affect the citizens of the most incarceration happy nation on the planet couldn’t hurt.

Yes. My argument would simply be that, while certainly there will be problems for people arising either way, I don’t believe that one side vastly outweighs the other, and in that case I would much rather have more and more accurate information known than not.

What about the idea of different personas for different parts of our lives? What I may be perfectly willing to share with friends and family I may not wish my employer to know about.

What I do at work I may not wish my church (not that I have one) to know about.

What about the idea of being young, rash and impetuous and having these actions come back to haunt you in later life?

I can well imagine that a petition I signed at 18 I might find an embarrassment at 28. I would be a different person, is it really “fair” that something that happened 10 years ago comes back to haunt me? (and let’s face it, with the level of availability of information being discussed here it can)

What also bothers me is that listings of information don’t provide context. I am now 35, let’s just say for the sake of argument that at age 18 I got drunk and took a leak behind a tree (yeah the perennial favourite). Indecent exposure conviction. I move into a new neighbourhood, the local busybody searches my name and finds this 17 year old indiscretion - she posts fliers all around the neighbourhood that I am a pervert - is this really a fair and appropriate response?

What if arrest records are also public info (they are right?). An ex-wife maliciously accuses me of child abuse (something I am 100% innocent of), I get arrested (as is a matter of course in most such things) while they do an investigation. Somebody searches my name and sees I got arrested for child abuse, make the assumption of “where there’s smoke there’s fire” and tarnish my name.

Neither scenario is too difficult to imagine, and I could dig up tonnes of anecdotes to support both if I had the time and inclination.

Does this mean that records should be completely sealed? I don’t think so. Does it mean that as a society we either have to come up with new rules / ways of organising the information OR have a shift in mores away from such scrutiny and judgement - absolutley.

Then don’t do anything with your public persona that makes it a legal entity. Don’t sign petitions, don’t commit crimes.

Why should the public record be required to support your life of hypocrisy?

Pffft. Sounds like entitlement to me. “I want to party now without consequences later.” I say “Tough”. If this helps people grow up sooner, then that’s all the better.

Hear, hear!

At 18 you are an adult. If you make the choice to get drunk and as a result make a further choice expose yourself in public then you have also chosen to live with the consequences of those actions. The idea that we should encourage your social retardation and arrested development by making you immune to the consequences is laughable.

Most people never get arrested for exposing themselves, and if they do then you will not be ostracised when it is discovered that you have as well. IOW all this is doing is enforcing basic standards on you. That’s hardly unfair.

My issue is not primarily with the ease of access to this type of information, it is that many people have a tendancy to draw faulty conclusions. As I’ve heard said about the internet, data is not information. For a lot of folks, they aren’t armed to make the distinction.

When much of this information was “public” but “buried” only those with a certain background and dilligence would find it. I would posit that those folks, as a subset, would be more likely than the general populace to draw more subtle conclusions from the information they found.

But now, anyone with an internet connection can find out some trivial piece of data about a neighbor who is a stranger and paint some ridiculous fantasy picture in their mind about that person. Witch hunt, anyone?

Ultimately, we lose track of what is normal human behavior, we expect others to be infallible (often while downplaying our own foibles).

How about a permit for carrying a concealed weapon? Probation officers in my state need a permit to carry. They supervise violent offenders. I guess the violent offenders have a right to know where their P.O. lives, eh? So… don’t become a P.O., would be your advice?

How about getting a restraining order against your date rapist? I guess you shouldn’t have gotten raped, knowing that it would make your request for a restraining order a matter of public record and all. Pretty careless, eh?

The fact that there are limited exceptions that should be made to general public record rules does not mean that we should throw out or substantially modify public record rules. As you should well know. Let’s try a more substantial line of reasoning.

The big problem is the asymetricality of information. The information is out there. So if we restrict access to individual citizens, we are de facto giving government officials an advantage in access to information about citizens. Some bureaucrat will be able to read your arrest record and tax information but you won’t be able to look up his. Ideally, nobody would have this information but if somebody’s going to have it (and I don’t see how you’re going to avoid that) then equal access if preferable overall.


So, say when you were young you were a rabid pro-abortion rights petition signer. Later, after a decade of deep thought you realized you were WRONG and change you tune. Or visa versa. Or any other “significant” social “controversy”.

I am all for truth. But the idea that you must be permanently labeled for the person you were decades ago (even for non criminal stuff) I find only slightly less offfensive than a caste system, because such a thing is basically the intellectual equivalent of the same thing. What you are “born” into is what you are publicly trapped in.

Also, I seriously doubt public pee people expected to be labeled just this side of kiddy fuckers.

So you crawled out of the womb perfectly socially developed and have never made any sort of mistake since?

You never teased anyone at school, got into a fight, overestimated your capacity to handle alcohol, or god forbid didn’t realise somebody could see you from their rooftop lookout?

Then qudos to you man. Got luck on that sainthood.

I am not suggesting that there shouldn’t be consequences to behaving stupidly or inappropriatly. Just that stupidity should have a time limit. In my jurisdiction, plan poorly and go bankrupt, (which to me is a huge sin) is wiped from records after 7 years.

Do you really think its fair that someone might suffer consequences of a relatively minor and harmless) rash act they committed at 17 when they are 50? I guess your answer will depend on where you lie on the spectrum of minor and harmless also.

As to different personas for different parts of life - isn’t this pretty standard? It would be great if we could always take the high road, but at times economic reality is a little different.

Let’s say you sign a petition supporting same sex marriage. Your boss, a fundamentalist christian finds out and makes your work life difficult - do you really want to face that? With easily searchable records this is a very realistic scenario.

Or let’s assume the reverse - you are an accountant. You are also staunchly anti same sex marriage and sign a petition. Does this impact your work in anyway? Maybe a (potential) client finds out and decides not to hire you, even though this has nothing to do with job performance - is that fair or appropriate?

I don’t know Blake personally but I’m pretty sure he crawled out of the womb some time prior to his 18th birthday.

There’s different subcultures. In some it is not ok to expose yourself, in others it is. What you’re proposing, essentially, is to abolish such subcultures and homoginize in favor of the majority.

Unless they were private eyes hired to blackmail you.

Anyway, this is the future, folks. It’s not just the government spying on you and tracking you through your cell phone. It’s also other people knowing a lot more about you.

Short of putting the genie back into the bottle (impossible? maybe? maybe not? can we restrain technology?), the only option, as others have pointed out, is to reexamine our often unrealistic standards for one another and become a lot more understanding. (But fuck, maybe that’s impossible too? Can we restrain ourselves?) We’re up shit creek, folks…