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FOI Day: Kirtley warns government fear threatens right to information

By Nadia R. Schulman

Jane Kirtley...
Jane Kirtley

ARLINGTON, Va. — As the use of the Internet increases, so does the government's apprehension that public information published on the Internet will fall into the wrong hands, a leading First Amendment advocate warned today.

"I marvel at the level of fear that this new technology is generating," said Jane Kirtley, professor of media ethics and law at the University of Minnesota and former director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press. Kirtley was a keynote speaker at the National Freedom of Information Day conference, held at The Freedom Forum, sponsored by the First Amendment Center at Vanderbilt University in cooperation with the American Library Association.

"New technology, access and new media are the buzzwords today by which we seem to be driving our public debate," she said. Now that public information is even more accessible on the Web, we do not yet know what to expect, so "it's tempting to jettison our old models — or to slavishly cling to them as a kind of false security."

Kirtley said two reports on privacy recently were released by the Family Research Council and the Department of Justice. Both reports "evoke fear of the Internet as an ungovernable instrument of evil, posing a threat to our privacy, security, property, morals — and even our lives. They were designed to induce acquiescence of the citizenry to schemes" that endanger the public's free-speech rights, she said.

The latter report, concerned with preventing unlawful conduct on the Internet, "paints a very grim picture of a future where — unless law enforcement is granted unprecedented power to snoop, tape, tap, intercept, surveille and unveil us — we will be at the mercy of cyber-terrorists, who will use computers to defraud us, stalk us, rob us, molest our children and assault our eyes with filth," Kirtley said.

Among the suggestions for change in the Department of Justice's report is the proposal to weaken the Federal Privacy Protection Act, the statute that "protects journalists and newsrooms from searches and seizures," she said. The government is fearful that with the rise in the use of the Internet, most any computer can be used to gather and publish information.

"The report is frightening," she said. "But I wonder if it frightens the typical reader in the same way it frightens the ACLU — or me."

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