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Home > Publications > Quill > Shooting ourselves in our feet


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Friday, May 1, 2009
Shooting ourselves in our feet

David Cuillier

Just because you’re carrying a gun doesn’t mean you have to use it. Sometimes it should stay holstered. Same with some government documents and data. A record that is legally public doesn’t have to be posted for the public.

That’s difficult for me to say, because I believe strongly in open government. But in the past few years, some journalists have acted too quickly to post data online, and as a result they’ve unintentionally caused increased secrecy.

At times we shoot ourselves in our collective foot, most recently when it comes to concealed weapons permits.

Gunning for trouble

In 2005, an Orlando television station posted online data containing concealed gun permit holders. Seems fair enough. Some people might want to find out if their co-workers or estranged lovers are packing heat.

The public, however, didn’t see it that way. Pushed by the NRA, the Florida Legislature closed the records in 2006. And that’s in a state considered by many to be one of the most open.

I don’t believe the move was atrocious. But it doesn’t matter what I think. I don’t pass laws. What matters to legislators is what the public thinks.

Citizen backlash

Remember, a few decades ago, when people willingly and eagerly published their home phone numbers and home addresses for everyone to see in a large public database we called the phone book?

Or when kids in shop class made wooden family name signs to hang outside their homes?

Those days are over. Today, folks don’t like journalists or anyone else disseminating information that includes “personal” information. To most people, that means home addresses, dates of birth and home phone numbers.

Balancing test

We must report the truth and at the same time minimize harm. The public good should outweigh the perceived invasion of privacy.

Before posting government records and data online, stop for a minute and ask a few questions:

1. Is it personal? What information about individuals is included in the data that might be perceived as personal (home address, home phone number)?

2. Is it necessary? Is the personal information necessary, either to avoid confusing “John Smiths” or to convey the heart of the story or information?

3. Is it a public benefit? Is it clear to readers the public value for publishing that information? Is the reason concrete and important, not just reader curiosity? Can you easily explain it to a concerned citizen who calls the next day, or the legislators who react to those outraged readers? Bounce it off family and friends. What are their reactions?

More than ever, we need to think carefully about what we post online, even when the information is legally public. The alternative is losing access altogether, lock, stock and barrel.

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