Why are public records not free

Crucial participants in this information infrastructure are the commercial resellers who invest billions to gather information from open government sources and aggregate it into useable digital files which they maintain, update and make available to the public and institutional customers.

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It would be as wasteful for news organization, child safety centers, law enforcement, business intelligence services and companies in all sectors of the economy to create and maintain their own public record data bases as it would be for them to generate their own electricity. They rely on these information intermediaries for accurate, relevant and up-to-date information from public records.


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To preserve this open system, the laws governing public access to government information treat pubic release as the default and redaction to protect privacy interests as the exception. Detailed pictures of individuals can be assembled by curating various bits of information from public sources. Congress addressed these data risks 50 years ago in the Fair Credit Reporting Act FCRA , mandating that consumer credit reports could only be used for certain permissible purposes such as employment, credit or insurance.


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  • The availability of public records enables a wide variety of publicly beneficial activities.
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  • The FCRA allowed consumers to access their reports and correct inaccuracies and required companies to tell them when an adverse decision was based on their reports. It obliged credit reporting agencies to keep their files accurate, relevant and up-to-date. Congress might need to revisit these issues as it considers a new national privacy regime.

    Public records - Wikipedia

    The Vermont data broker law, for example, requires companies that collect and use public records to register with the state of Vermont, for no apparent reason or discernible public purpose. The California privacy law appears aimed at companies that collect information from their customers and then transfer it to third parties, and provides customers with the ability to opt out of such transfers and to access, correct or delete information pertaining to them.

    Unless revised or clarified, this obscure use constraint will almost certainly obstruct valuable public safety uses of public records databases, potentially enabling fraudsters, terrorists and criminals to hide their misdeeds. Careful thought about how to protect valuable uses of public records is needed as Congress considers a new national privacy regime. In a privacy framework in which the objective is to control the risk of harm from data use, all data, even data compiled from public records and combined with proprietary non-public information, would be subject to a risk analysis and to constraints when the use creates a significant risk of harm.

    This approach of narrowly tailoring privacy rules around public records as an exception to achieve specific government purposes is not only good policy.

    It is also the constitutional standard that will prevent new privacy rules from running afoul of the First Amendment. Because the collection, dissemination, and use of information, even personal information, is speech under settled Supreme Court case law, privacy laws are subject to heightened constitutional scrutiny.

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    A measure that is more restrictive of the free flow of information than is necessary for the achievement of its public policy goals, including privacy, would not pass judicial review. There are a lot of websites that provide access to a various public records in one place.

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    This includes all Federal civil suits, criminal charges, as well as bankruptcies. PACER is not free, in fact they charge 10 cents per page viewed. Yes, they are using a model stuck in 20th century.

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    The vast majority of public records about people are at the local level: city, county, and state. Arrests are usually maintained by the county sheriff, or the local police agency that booked them. Exceptions to this occur when the arrest is made by the state police. This information is usually maintained by the county clerk where the event happened. For older information you may need to contact the state department of health or vital statistics to get access.