WOULDN’T YOU LOVE TO HAVE unlimited freedom to poke around in things that are none of your business? That’s exactly what I was doing at my desk one August afternoon. I had logged on to the Internet and gone directly to the now infamous and soon-to-be-illegal Web site that contains all the Texas driver’s license records. There, available by name or by driver’s license number, was all the information on a Texas driver’s license—name, address, weight, birth date, sex, expiration date, if the license is active or suspended, class of license, and any restrictions. In addition, a search keyed by the address on a license would give all the other licensed drivers listed at that address. That’s not all. At the same site, I could enter any Texas license plate and find the owner of the car. And, most intoxicating of all in its way, as absurd as it may sound, I could find the voting records of every voter in Dallas County.
For about twenty minutes I cruised through this Web site, finding it both seductive and appalling. I looked up the licenses of a few friends, fascinated for some reason by what they listed as their height and weight. I discovered that Ann Richards, who has the most famous white hair in Texas, has her hair color listed as blond. I looked up which elections various friends in Dallas had voted in and found I could predict their party affiliations with perfect accuracy.
But the initial excitement, which felt almost illicit, soon faded into boredom. What did I care about what people weigh, or say they weigh? What did I care about any of this?
Nothing, but that’s not the same thing as not caring about whether this information should be on the Internet at all. You can’t help but wonder, with so much personal information on the World Wide Web, if we are the masters of the Internet or its victims. It was a spooky experience for a husband and a father of teenage children to find on a computer screen the full names, ages, heights, weights, and birthdays of his wife and all his children. Using the license plate database, someone could put in a license plate number he had seen on the street and thus find out the name and the address of the car’s owner. This is more than a little creepy. A woman innocently driving her car is as good as revealing her address to anyone with a computer and a modem. Thus this Web site of Texas driving records turns out to be at the center of the most perplexing problem facing the Internet: How can we have both the free flow of information on the Internet and personal privacy? That is a problem no one has solved, not even people who are paid to think about it. I talked with David Sobel, the legal counsel for the Electronic Privacy Information Center in Washington, D.C., a public-interest research center sponsored by the Fund for Constitutional Government. He said, in effect, we’re working on it.
Texas driver’s licenses are on the Internet because a man in Dallas named Dave Barrie started a company named PublicLink Corporation about a year ago. Its intent was to acquire certain kinds of state and local government records, put that information on the Internet, and then charge people who want to use it. First, PublicLink put Texas driver’s licenses and Texas license plates on the Internet. The State of Texas routinely sells copies of the driver’s license database for $1,600 to a variety of concerns that use the information in various ways, sometimes even reselling it, which is how PublicLink got its copy. (Leaving aside for the moment whether the state should sell copies of the database at all, it does seem that the state’s price is far too low.) Eventually, PublicLink wanted to include voting records, arrest and eviction records, civil suits, property-tax rolls, and marriage records. All of these records are readily available to anyone who wants to go to the courthouse and ask for them. Barrie never thought there would be any problem with putting this information on the Internet. How could there be? After all, the information was already public.
Barrie’s intent was to charge a subscription fee and then a small usage fee—25 cents or so—every time a subscriber looked up a driver’s license or a license plate. But to give it a trial run before they began charging customers, Barrie and his associates put up their Web site last April 30 with the information available for free and gave the address to about fifty people. Word spread with the lightning speed of the Electronic Age, and soon their site was getting up to 15,000 hits a day.
Unfortunately for PublicLink, all this activity attracted the attention of the Legislature. Representative Ruth Jones McClendon, a Democrat from San Antonio, sponsored measures that barred the state’s information about driver’s licenses and license plates from the Internet.
Attempting to fight back, PublicLink posted what it called a “News Flash!!!” on its site with some thirteen points in favor of allowing the information to remain on the Internet. The flash contended that the new law would be in violation of other laws concerning freedom of information and that it was an “emotional response” rather than a rational one.
This counterassault failed miserably, however. A bill banning this information from the Internet passed the Legislature on May 29. Governor Bush gladly signed the bill, which will go into effect September 1.
Dave Barrie has decided not to fight the law, even though he believes he could eventually win in court, and took his site down. His former associate, however, a man named Dale Bruce Stringfellow, Jr., is maintaining the information on a different Web site (which is easy enough to find, although I’m not making it easier still by listing the address here), where he proclaims that more information, such as arrest and eviction records, will soon