THE NEWS SERVICE OF FLORIDA: Public Records Laws Not Keeping Up With Tech Changes

Nov 20, 2009


THE CAPITAL, TALLAHASSEE, Nov. 20, 2009… The state’s open records laws can’t keep pace with technology, legal professionals and state technology chiefs told the Attorney General’s Sunshine Tech Team Friday.

The Sunshine Tech team is examining open records problems associated with newer technologies such as BlackBerries, instant messaging and social networking sites. The issue arose earlier this year when members and staff of the Public Service Commission were accused of communicating with lobbyists for Florida Power & Light via their BlackBerries.

But with more and more communication taking place through instant messaging and social networking sites, technology officers are struggling over the issue of how those communications should be archived, if they can be, and how to do it on a limited budget.

The question is how to best manage the volume of information that has increased with technological changes, officials said.

Sharyn Smith, a former chief judge for the Division of Administrative Hearings, worked in the attorney general’s office in the 1970s when the open records laws were first being implemented. But the laws, written in the late 1960s, were written by archivists who simply wanted the state’s history preserved.

There was no way to foresee the advances in communication, she said

Ramin Kouzehkanani, chief information officer for the Department of Children and Families, echoed Smith’s comments.

“The statute needs to catch up with technology,” he said. “I’m not very sure what’s clear, what is expressed in the law.”

The current open records law basically deals with anything put on paper, which has been extended to include Email. But lawyers and technology officers are still struggling with several issues related to newer technologies.

If they do archive instant messaging conversations, they will also need to determine how long the records should be kept. And with more and more methods of conversation, there is almost a risk of drowning in information, said Deborah Stevens, chief information officer for Attorney General Bill McCollum.

With the current search technology the state is using, she said, it could make searching for archives increasingly difficult when a public records request is made, she said.

A search could end up bringing in many documents that have no or little relevance to the actual records request, making the information given out to the person requesting the records more difficult to sift through and less valuable in the end.

And, all documents with sensitive information would have to be redacted, which requires someone to sift through each document. If a department has to spend more hours on redacting documents, they may have to ultimately charge the public more for the records.

“It’s going to be less accessible than more,” Stevens said.

Stuart McKee, the national technology officer for Microsoft, who also served as the chief information officer for the state of Washington, briefed the team on different technologies that could help in archiving and searching, but cautioned there was no perfect answer.

“I think it’s safe to say there’s not a magic bullet,” he said. “It’s going to be messy.”

More money could lessen technology headaches, but with the state facing a projected $2.6 billion shortfall for next year, a massive technology overhaul probably isn’t in the cards.

“Technology is absolutely not an inhibitor or the constraining vehicle,” said Nelson Munn, chief information officer for the Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles. “It’s strictly to me a major policy issue.”