Accessing public records

The geniuses at Google Inc., whose brand recognition is so strong the company’s name is most often used as a verb, are welcoming some state bureaucracies to the information age — and exposing public records to sunshine in the process.

Need-it-now Internet users seldom have the patience to navigate multiple Web sites while hunting for data. Google official J.J. Needham estimates that 70 percent of visitors to government Web sites enter through links provided by search engines.

Unfortunately for the user, most government servers aren’t friendly to search applications, Mr. Needham says. The Web sites of Virginia, Arizona, California and Utah, for example, had blocked Google and other search engines from listing tens of thousands of pages of data related to education, real estate, health care and other departments.

“Unless you had a master’s degree in government administration, you probably wouldn’t find the actual information you’re looking for,” Chris Cummiskey, chief information officer for the state of Arizona, told The Associated Press.

So the Internet search icon is providing its expertise and software to make difficult-to-access documents available to taxpayers with a few key words and the click of a mouse. After about six months of work with technology officers from these four states, Google has created virtual roadmaps that connect records to the people who paid for their creation.

From a politician’s perspective, improving access to public records isn’t as sexy as, say, opening a new community center or park or installing a traffic signal. Few voters march down to City Hall or the state Capitol to demand copies of draft ordinances, audits and memos.

That’s too bad, because without transparency in government business, taxpayers can’t verify that their representatives are acting as responsible stewards of public assets. Although only a tiny share of constituents participate in proceedings and take the trouble to read meeting agendas and backup materials, the knowledge that anyone can do so bolsters public trust in our governments.

Too many public officials are willing to operate in secrecy if given the chance. And without proper checks, some of the more maddening inconveniences of our technology-driven society can push public records into the shadows. “You say you can’t find that document on our Web site?” a bureaucrat might ask. “It must be a problem with your search or your computer. The records are there. Trust us.

“What’s that? You’d like me to mail you a hard copy of that agenda? That’ll be $25. You don’t want to pay that much? OK, you can come down to City Hall. We’re open until 5 p.m. And we’re closed on Fridays and on weekends.”

Google’s good will extends to the federal government, where the company hopes to break down more barriers to public information.

However, Google’s generosity has led to some criticism. A handful of privacy advocates are concerned that some easily accessible public documents will contain the personal information of taxpayers. Marc Rotenberg, executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, says some public health records contain Social Security numbers. Mr. Rotenberg also complains that Google targets certain Internet ads toward people who access government Web sites.

Rather than discourage governments from working with Google to improve technology, these critics should instead be asking why governments collect this kind of information in the first place. If data are sensitive enough to enable identity theft or reveal a medical condition, they shouldn’t be in the custody of snooping bureaucrats.

And if users object to advertising that results from their inquiries, perhaps they’d rather pay Google a flat fee for each search. No company can provide goods or services without revenue, after all.

Kudos to Google for its invaluable public service.

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