Public Records are No Longer Effectively Private


There are a lot of government records that are public: court proceedings, arrest records and property recordings are examples. Public records are one of the cornerstones of democracy. Democracies prefer accountability to enforcement. Rather than trying to enforce every rule and law with absolute certainty, we make information public and make people accountable. Accountability based systems scale better than enforcement systems. Even so, the Internet has upset some long held practices related to public records. Here's an example:

Utah County, where I live, has put property records online. They've also done a good job of making their queries using GET, so I can give you a link to the information they have about my property. (Warning: its buggy; most of the time it craps out with a 'server not found" or "Error in DLL" error.)

Now, I'm not sure I'm very excited about having my mortgage information on the Web for all the world to see, but I am convinced that they're not breaking any rules--everything they've made public really is public. I know my wife would be very upset to find this information on the net. She wasn't very happy about being able to type pour phone number into Google and get a map to our place. How do you feel about it? If your county doesn't make this information public now, they will. Recorders all over the country are moving in this direction since it makes their job easier.

There's a reason property information is recorded with the county and why its public: protecting the public from land fraud. When I buy a piece of property, I want to know what its exact boundaries are, what disputes their may have been over it, what rights come with it, and what liens there might be against it. The problem is that while this information has always been public, the reality of the paper record keeping system made it effectively private for most purposes. You had to physically present yourself at the county recorder's office to search through their records to find out about my property. This meant you had to really want it. Now anyone who wants to know what my mortgage is can go look it up online in a few minutes, in their bathrobe, for any purpose whatsoever.

These collisions between the Internet and public policy are fascinating. I wrote about a similar collision between State telecom regulation and VoIP last week. Techies have a unique perspective on these issues and can be of great value to the public policy discussions. Techies have a tendency to ignore these kind of debates however and then just rail against them when regulators, legislators, or whoever make a boneheaded move. These people need your help in framing the debate and they need to hear from you when the debate happens. The next few decades are likely to be painful if we don't solve these issues correctly, so I urge you to get involved.