Privacy Rites | Opinion | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

Back when I went to college, one of the benefits of school was that, if you were going to get drunk enough to forget what happened the night before, no one else was likely to remember either. But students today, it seems, don't get off quite so easily. And increasingly, neither do the rest of us.

The Chronicle of Higher Education, for example, recently featured a story about how college newspapers -- including the University of Pittsburgh's Pitt News -- are getting calls from alumni who want to have their foibles erased from newspaper Web sites.

"Youthful activities that once would have disappeared into the recesses of a campus library are now preserved on the public record, to be viewed with skeptical eyes by ... potential employers," the Chronicle reports.

At the Pitt News, some alumni have been calling to have their names removed from the online version of the paper's police blotter. The request isn't totally unreasonable. As the Chronicle noted, the paper's police blotter includes only arrests made by campus security, not by city police. So if you and your frat brother are arrested by two different cops for public intoxication, one of you may suffer more consequences than the other -- even if your blood-alcohol level was the same.

Unfair? Maybe. But then again, more than a couple residents of South Oakland might say, "You should have thought of that before you threw up in my hydrangeas."

Full disclosure: I sit on a Pitt News advisory board, and took part in some discussions about this very issue. Ordinarily, I wouldn't even address this topic at all. But hey, the Chronicle story is out there -- and available online, no less. And the rules are changing not just for college students, but for everybody.

Until the Internet came along, there was a big difference between what the public had a right to know, and what it was likely to find out. Records could be public without being in plain view. Privacy scholars call this distinction "practical obscurity." But at least in Pittsburgh, a big reason it works is that local government has practically refused to be more transparent.

A few years ago, for example, the county began posting real-estate information online. But there were early complaints that the Web site allowed users to search for property owners by name ... which supposedly made it too easy to harass or threaten people. In late 2007, the name-search function was removed.

Meanwhile, even acts like contributing to local politicians, or being awarded government contracts, typically took place below the public's radar. The records of those transactions were kept on paper -- available, though not exactly accessible.

That is starting to change. During the past election season, for example, Mayor Luke Ravenstahl was dogged by allegations of rewarding campaign contributors with big contracts. Ravenstahl has rejected those accusations, but he's clearly weary of them. In response, he's agreed to post more information about contracting decisions and other government acts online.

In fact, the city and county have already begun posting online records of campaign contributions made to local politicians. I've had trouble getting the county's Web site to work, but the city's site displays electronic copies of campaign-finance reports -- complete with home addresses. That's unusual: While the state and federal government post contributions online, they do not include street-address information. I won't be surprised if we start hearing complaints that government has become too transparent.

But the Chronicle does offer some advice if you want to cover up an online record of your embarrassment. If a Google search of your name turns up something bad, one journalism professor suggests, you should "participate more in the online conversation." Start a blog, rack up some accomplishments you can brag about online -- do whatever it takes to displace that DUI.

That's sort of a neo-Puritan solution: Your misdeeds brand you with a Scarlet Link, visible to all. Only a public show of atonement can wipe clean the slate -- or at least the first page of search results. College kids in my day didn't have to go to all that trouble ... just like Pittsburgh mayors a few decades ago didn't have to apologize for helping out allies from time to time.

But when you look at the mess youthful indiscretions have made around here, it's hard to justify giving them a pass.

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