Online court raises question of 'too public' records

SAN JOSE, CALIF. — SAN JOSE, Calif. - From epic trade-secret battles in Silicon Valley to an individual's bankruptcy in Topeka, Kan., the federal courts are moving toward a system of filing all documents electronically, hoping to eventually mothball those paper-filled manila folders jamming shelves in courthouses across the country.

However, technology may not land easily in the nation's federal courts - the repository of personal but ordinarily public information. Confronted with a fierce debate over privacy and public access issues, the federal judiciary is struggling with how much of its business to send into the ether of the Internet.


The U.S. Judicial Conference, which sets policy for all federal courts, this week released public comments from hundreds of organizations that have weighed in on a basic question posed by the looming prospect of e-court records: Can a public document become too public if it is delivered into cyberspace instead of a paper court file?

To media organizations, consumer groups and others, there is no such thing as too public. But privacy groups and some government agencies worry that unfettered access to every public court document could lead to abuses, such as exploitation of personal data contained in bankruptcy files.


"I do think it presents some difficult privacy issues," said Pam Samuelson, a cyberlaw expert at Boalt Hall School of Law at the University of California, Berkeley. "It's one thing if paper documents about a dispute are 'public records' in the sense that one can visit a courthouse to look at them or make copies, but quite another to put the same documents online."

The federal courts are mulling the controversy now because they are preparing to begin a shift to electronic filing systems over the next five years.

Northern California's three federal courthouses - in San Francisco, San Jose and Oakland - plan to experiment with electronic filing by the end of this year. As a result, the federal judiciary must decide soon whether to place more restrictions on public access to electronic filings than on paper documents.

A committee of federal judges is scheduled to hold a public hearing on the issue on March 16 in Washington, D.C.

Media organizations, consumer groups and financial service and credit companies, among others, have taken a strong position that there should be no limits on documents posted on the Internet if they are publicly filed and would otherwise be found in a paper court file.

On the other side, numerous privacy groups, the Federal Trade Commission and the U.S. Justice Department, among others, have proposed limits on what should be available on the Internet.