Privacy and the Internet (7/01/97)

The United States Supreme Court crossed roads with the Internet at the end of June when it ruled that the Communications Decency Act was unconstitutional in that it was a violation of the First Amendment's right to freedom of speech. The ruling came as no surprise since most scholars had predicted its outcome.

What interested me, however, was how quickly the decision about the Internet appeared on the Internet. Certainly there are a number of web sites that contain the text of Supreme Court decisions. (They aren't as interesting as you might have initially thought, are they?). However, according to the Texas Lawyer newspaper, groups that challenged the CDA had asked the clerk of the court to have the ruling distributed on computer disks on the day of the decision. The clerk complied.

Moments upon release of the opinion, Jonah Seiger, communications director of the Center for Democracy and Technology, popped the disk into his laptop, hooked up to a telephone line, and uploaded the opinion on its Internet site. Elapsed time: less than 10 minutes.

I've utilized the Net for about a year now and with each passing day I'm more in awe of its possibilities. For example, I can write this column from my home, upload it to a server in California, and it can be read instantaneously by a friend of mine in Hartford, Connecticut.


The courts of this state, however, have been slow to respond to this new medium. Although each of the 14 appellate courts, the Texas Supreme Court, and the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals have web sites, only the unofficial Dallas Court of Appeals site is worthy of visiting. The Court of Criminal Appeals is making an effort to enter the technology age by placing its opinions in word perfect format and allowing them to be downloaded and read with a word processor program. The rest of the sites are, in a word, pitiful.

Of course, we are still in the embryonic stage of the Internet, and everyone is still getting their feet wet. I'm certain that within the next ten to fifteen years an individual will be able to perform a search of the Wise County District Clerk's files at home via the Internet. The information available will probably include not only what cases have been filed but what documents have been filed in the case as well. Heck, a state wide search to determine, for example, if a potential employee has every been a party to a lawsuit, civil or criminal, anywhere in Texas is not out of the question.

Privacy issues are, of course, a concern. If you have ever had your name on a document in the district clerk's office you probably haven't been worried to much about disclosure. Why not? The reason is that someone must physically walk to the courthouse, ask for the file, and then turn to the page in the file which contains your name in order to be discovered. This, of course, is not likely to happen. At least, no one is going to do that for fun. Public information, practically speaking, has not meant public dissemination.

But that may soon change. If the same search of the district clerk's office could could be performed from the privacy of one's own home, the chances of your name being seen by others is dramatically increased.

From the U.S. Supreme Court to a web site on your computer screen within 10 minutes: I am inclined to cheer. Your name on a document in the Wise County Courthouse to your neighbor's computer screen within twenty four hours: You might be inclined to be concerned.

And if it's my name, I'm concerned as well.

Barry Green is the District Attorney for the 271st Judicial District.

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