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 be available. The site is free, although Stringfellow wants to begin charging soon. He also wants to leave the information up after September 1 and then test the law in court.

Representative McClendon heard from a woman who feared her abusive ex-husband would find her address on the Public-Link site. Perhaps there will be other instances of stalking and other kinds of intrusion and harassment. Such incidents would be fewer if the site had charged for its information from the onset. 

Also, there is a certain safety in numbers. About 17 million people are in the driver’s license database, so statistically the odds of someone using your information against you are small. But that’s cold comfort when someone does use this information against you and your privacy is violated.

At the same time, there are numerous legitimate uses for this information that actually increase individual safety. One woman who was being stalked got her tormentor’s license plate number, then found out where he lived and used that information to stop him. Parking lot operators, particularly ones around large offices or factories, are quite interested in whose cars are in their lots for security reasons. There is a brisk traffic in false or stolen driver’s licenses. Businesses that use driver’s licenses as identification can reduce fraud by checking with the site. Still, knowing that private information is so easily available to anyone leaves you feeling exposed and defenseless.

This is not a temporary condition, but one that will be with us from now on. I think it seems more frightening now since it is so new. Computers have created the power to collect, store, and analyze cheaply an endless amount of personal information. This information is used by everyone, starting with federal and local governments and almost every business you patronize.

Our family’s supermarket offers a card that qualifies us for various bargains but also allows the store to record every purchase we make. If the store manager were interested enough, he could examine our records and learn many personal details—the kind of food we like, the products we favor for personal hygiene, how much beer and wine we drink in an average day.

And I’m not sure I care. It sounds a little spooky at first, but the result is that the store can use the information to stock the food and products our neighborhood likes and uses, to display them more prominently, and to price them competitively. I accept this seemingly considerable but finally benign breach of my privacy in return for a store whose products are selected and priced with my exact tastes in mind.

For decades many businesses, including magazines, have sold the names and addresses of their customers to other businesses. Most often the result is a direct-mail package in your mailbox that appears without your knowing why. Some people find this unsolicited mail highly offensive but most simply ignore it except for the occasional product or service they discover they want. On such occasional responses are built whole marketing empires.

With electronic communication on the Internet, similar information is available to anyone about anyone. That should be good. Each individual should benefit from it. That—unlimited access to information—is why the Internet has grown so quickly. Use of the Internet for fraud and for criminal intrusions into the lives of individuals is a deplorable side effect, but fraud and stalking and all the rest were around before the Internet. The Internet appears to make such criminality easier, but there’s nothing to indicate that it has made it more frequent.