Citizen emails should be kept confidential

Bill Russell, CCE

 The following is a “letter to the editor” distributed to area media January 31, 2011 regarding The Charlotte Obserever’s request of local municipalities to turn over data on residents as a matter of public record.   As of this date, while The Observer has stated the data will not be used for marketing, but they have not relented in their request of the lists.

In 1997, I signed up for my first AOL account and heard the familiar little jingle “You’ve got mail!”  Now 14 years and several email accounts later, I receive more email than I really care to receive. According to research by the Radicati Group, the corporate user alone receives approximately 99 emails a day. That does not take into account any email you may receive at home. Now, The Charlotte Observer would like to add theirs to the list. The newspaper is using the North Carolina Public Records law in requesting information municipalities have on hand regarding residential email, addresses, and telephone numbers.

Steve Gunn, the Director of Strategic Products and Audience Development for The Charlotte Observer states that, “The Observer has requested the listings because we believe that many of the engaged citizens on the list would be interested in helping us improve our journalism by telling us about stories they see.”

The legislation was written to create transparency in government, making sure the media could serve as the “watchdogs” against government and the elected officials themselves operating outside of the lines of their jurisdiction; and to keep the citizenry informed. It was not, however, created for the private marketing use of the paper, or any business for its profit.

The Charlotte Observer’s request and the existing rule, while legal, makes possible for any business or organization to request the data for their own use. Anyone who has signed up for a town or city generated newsletter, Parks and Recreation bulletin, or communicated with Town Hall about trash service would have their private information turned over to anyone who requested it.  The Observer’s Editor, Rick Thames has defended the paper’s decision and says the paper will not use the email addresses to spam the recipient and echoed Gunn’s statement that it is merely to allow the public to advise The Observer on their reporting.

The Lake Norman Chamber of Commerce, representing more than 1,000 business members in the Cornelius, Davidson, Huntersville and greater Lake Norman region is opposed to releasing individual citizen data to any organization or business, regardless of its use. It is a violation of the trust between government and its citizenry.

Residents should feel free to contact City Hall or their elected officials, and enjoy communication without the fear that their private data will be used for commercial gain. While we encourage healthy business growth and the spirit of free enterprise, the Lake Norman Chamber supports legislation which safeguards the private citizen’s personal data.

If The Charlotte Observer feels that the newspaper itself cannot adequately serve as a vehicle to solicit reader and citizen opinion, then perhaps it should turn to the option many businesses practice each week – take out an advertisement in their publication or a local paper, Internet media source, or magazine. There are several here in the Lake Norman region, with significant market penetration and readership, which would be happy to sell any business, organization, or competing newspaper for that matter – an ad.

Bill Russell, CCE IOM

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