OPINION COLUMNS

Public notices belong in print, not websites

By Phil Major | Published Saturday, February 18, 2012

The news media finds itself embroiled on multiple legislative fronts, something that, frankly, I don’t remember being at such a critical level for our industry in prior decades.

We’re battling: the post office for service; Congress over health-care reforms impacting small business and over estate taxes that hamper family ownership; state and federal lawmakers over open records and open meetings; and locally the interpretation and implementation of those rules. To name a few.

Phil Major

Phil Major

And near the top of the list is the fight over public notice.

There has been a push for about a decade to move public notice out of print and onto websites.

There are many arguments why this is not a good idea, at least if you have any interest in preserving democracy as we know it. But those are fodder for another day.

Recent incidents locally have illustrated in graphic terms why relying on the Internet as the sole source for anything is a bad idea.

Lawmakers use the excuse that putting notices on a website will help save money. What they don’t tell you is that they want to hide such notices where fewer people will see them, and they relish being able to stick it to the press financially.

But as yet, no one has explained how public notices can be protected when they exist only electronically. How are such notices going to be archived, and how are they going to be defended from hacking, or for that matter, from changes made by those tasked with protecting the system?

Recently the website hosting service for two local news sites was hacked. While the biggest impact was probably that these sites were offline for extended periods, the lesson to be learned is two-fold. Hacking is a prevalent practice, and it makes the use of the Internet as a be-all, end-all information source troubling at best.

The hackers could have put who knows what on the sites and made it look like legitimate news.

The Internet can be a great tool for information gathering. But the careful journalist knows that you confirm such information before calling it reliable.

Let’s assume that the battle over the location of power lines through our county winds up in court, and five or 10 years from now the wording of the electric company’s public notice comes into question.

We can produce the printed notice, along with a notarized affidavit. It cannot be easily altered, and unless a major disaster wipes out our office, the county heritage museum’s microfilms of the Messenger, the company that scans our papers in Mississippi and the legal offices of the electric company (and probably everyone else involved in the litigation), it can be proven in court.

But one hacker with some time to kill could change a few words in a digital file, and you’ve got the potential for a real problem.

Imagine if we went to press with some unconfirmed Internet-only information, only to find out later that it had been altered by a hacker, or that the legitimate author had made changes after the fact without notifying us. There would likely be hell to pay.

Until lawmakers can tell us how such a potential problem can be prevented, we will vigorously defend public notices in print.

It’s still the best method for letting you know your taxes are going up, the property behind you is being rezoned industrial, or there’s a power line or pipeline coming through your backyard.

2 Responses to “Public notices belong in print, not websites”

  1. Cheryl Cole says:

    Once upon a time, the town criers announced all public notices. They never thought they would be replaced by other forms of communication.

  2. I agree with Mr. Major 100%.

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