May 22, 2018
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Addressing e-mail

The recent tussle between the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife and the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine over the department’s disclosure of e-mail addresses of some who purchased fishing and hunting licenses online illustrates a new issue with which government must wrestle.

The nature of public information has changed with the advent of the Internet. Historically, anyone could walk into a municipal office and get names and addresses from voter registration and property tax lists. Those addresses could be used to send solicitations of all kinds. E-mail addresses are more valuable for such solicitations, because it is easier — and cheaper — to reach thousands of people.

The flap between SAM and DIF&W came when SAM requested, citing freedom of information laws, the addresses of those who signed up to receive messages from the department. After purchasing a hunting or fishing license online, users were asked if they wanted to receive the messages, but they probably did not expect their addresses would be shared with a third party.

SAM Executive Director George Smith has said he has not sold the list. But he could have. Those addresses would be valued by outfitting businesses, gun manufacturers, boat sales businesses and so on.

The department fought SAM’s request for the addresses for nine months. Finally, the state Attorney General’s Office ruled the addresses must be made available. At the a legislative hearing Thursday on a bill that would block future releases of e-mail addresses, Mr. Smith noted that his group routinely requested and was given the mailing addresses of those who purchased hunting and fishing licenses the old-fashioned way.

The department supports LD 1651, which would block future disclosure of e-mail addresses. Its position, according to a statement, is: “We believe the list should be kept private because we do not believe it is a public record per se, but rather part of a business transaction.”

On the one hand, it seems access to e-mail addresses was not anticipated by freedom of access laws, and not what those who signed up for information from the DIF&W expected. The argument that those who purchase hunting and fishing licenses are more like private customers than lobbyists or state contractors makes sense.

On the other hand, the disclosure is not unprecedented when weighed against the historic release of names and addresses of those who purchase hunting and fishing licenses.

An obvious fix, which ought to be adopted across the board wherever people use the state’s Web services, is to provide a disclosure — by submitting your e-mail address, you should understand it is subject to freedom of information requests.

In this era of limited resources, the state must continue to encourage people to register their vehicles, file their income taxes and purchase fishing licenses online. And every effort should be made to protect the privacy of online users and block unwanted solicitation. But the reality is that like the property lists at municipal offices, e-mail addresses of those interacting with state government likely will remain accessible to anyone.

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