Google announced recently that it is assisting states in making available public records that are now unavailable or difficult to easily access online. Google hopes to persuade federal agencies to employ the same tools, an effort that worries consumer privacy pundits, while receiving praise from open government advocates. Google announced that it has already partnered with Arizona, California, Utah and Virginia to remove technical barriers that had prevented search engines, including Microsoft, Yahoo and Google, from accessing tens of thousands of public records (education, real estate, health care and the environment). The newly available records will not be exclusive to the search engines owned by Google, Yahoo and Microsoft.
Despite the obvious benefits of this Google initiative for those conducting Web searches, privacy advocates said they are worried about unintended consequences, cautioning that some records may contain personal and confidential information that should not be widely available. The debate has been ongoing for some time.1
In unrelated news, the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press announced that "Federal Court Moving Away from Secret Dockets"
The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press commends as a good step forward in reducing court secrecy the U.S. Judicial Conference's vote today urging federal courts to acknowledge sealed cases in their electronic dockets. The Conference - the chief policy-making body for the federal court system - today strongly recommended all federal trial courts with electronic docketing systems clearly indicate to users that cases are sealed instead of displaying a notice reading "No such case." In announcing the change, Chief Judge Thomas F. Hogan of the U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C., credited the Reporters Committee with uncovering the existence of the off-the-docket cases, which he said were unknown to many court officials.
1 See, e.g., Merrill Douglas' January 02, 2006 article, discussing the pros and cons of unfettered online public access to court records that formerly required a trip to the courthouse to obtain.