Bipartisan bill would mandate right-to-know records over email

Monitor staff
Published: 1/17/2018 9:29:52 PM

A Senate bill to allow citizens to request free electronic records under the right-to-know law has been cheered by open-records advocates as a move toward accessibility.

But towns and public bodies say the bill would subject them to time-consuming requests and require them to redesign their data systems to accommodate the proposed law.

Senate Bill 395, which carries a wide and bipartisan bench of sponsors, would amend RSA 91 to specify that “if feasible,” electronically stored records must be provided to citizens in the media format they desire. That could mean by email, hard copy, through an internet transfer or other method.

The bill provides that no citizen be forced to appear in person at the public body to collect the records if they are electronically available. Further, records transferred over the internet must be provided free of charge.

In presenting the bill Wednesday, prime sponsor Sen. Bob Giuda said it would make records accessible to residents for whom trekking to their town or school offices may not always feasible. The bill would also prohibit public authorities from forcing costly transfers by print or hard drive when email could suffice, Giuda said.

But public officials warned that by allowing a person to request records in a preferred format, the bill would force towns and school boards to transfer files over to electronic systems, which could become costly. They argued that it would embolden “data trolls” – out-of-state firms that use the right-to-know law to collect and sell personal data to others.

And they said that providing certain documents electronically could open the system to potential privacy breaches.

“Records are like an onion: There’s many layers in them,” said William Dow, records manager in Keene. “What you see on a computer screen is one layer of that onion.”

Underneath the electronic document, Dow continued, could be metadata and code that would allow a savvy recipient to extrapolate more information than they’re legally allowed to receive.

Proponents have dismissed the arguments. The bill doesn’t explicitly require the creation of new databases to make records electronically available; it simply requires public bodies make their existing electronic records available in more convenient formats, Giuda argued. That saves time for both public officials and the public, Giuda said.

“It’s a frequent tactic to demonize and cite as extreme the concern,” he said. But, he added, “I would be very surprised if most of the town officials wouldn’t favor this bill.”

David Saad, president of advocacy group Right to Know New Hampshire, said the bill was simply an attempt to bring the 50-year-old right-to-know law into the modern era.

“Sending records over the internet allows the public body to fulfill a request in the most cost-effective and efficient manner possible,” he said. “In today’s world of the internet and electronic networks – electronic communications – this is how business is conducted.”

(Ethan DeWitt can be reached at edewitt@cmonitor.com, or on Twitter at @edewittNH.)


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