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Undermining open government

Balancing privacy with openness in a state where the public has a constitutional right to know offers government both challenges and opportunities in the Internet age. The trick is to use technology to bolster this right while strengthening existing privacy protections regardless of whether a public record is on paper or computer. A proposal by Florida's court clerks would do the opposite, undermining Florida's open-government laws and leaving privacy vulnerable to whim.

A lobbyist for the Florida Association of Court Clerks and Comptrollers wants state lawmakers to change the law and relieve clerks from having to redact protected information from court files. Though Florida's Sunshine Laws make most records of state and local agencies public, a broad range of personal information, from Social Security numbers to bank, credit and medical records, is exempt by law and closed to protect privacy interests. Historically clerks have blocked those records with felt-tipped markers, but with documents increasingly available online, critics contend sensitive information could be splashed to a worldwide audience. The association wants to give individuals filing documents the power to decide what belongs in a public record.

This perverts the entire purpose of the Sunshine Laws by delegating the trust for open government to those most desiring secrecy. As it stands, records are presumed open unless the law specifically exempts them, and trained court clerks have established procedures for keeping information confidential. Giving anyone who walks into the courthouse that authority flips the presumption of openness. It gives discretion too much weight. Individuals could make up exemptions that now require legislative approval and whose limits Floridians enshrined in the Constitution.

A more effective course would be to use technology to strengthen open government and privacy simultaneously. Clerks need more staff, software and other tools to mask confidential information. Beyond that, the courts should collect less personal information that has little relevance in a legal case or official documents. Legislative intervention is premature. The state Supreme Court is only now hearing recommendations to better balance privacy and online access. Clerks, instead of pre-empting that process, should be talking about ways they can continue to manage their responsibility and not create two tiers of access for the paper and digital worlds.