Georgia bill bolsters privacy

Last week’s passage of a revised Georgia Sunshine Law now blocks political campaigns, marketers and almost anyone else from access to residents’ email addresses on file with local governments.

Georgia’s Open Records Law has for years exempted Neighborhood Watch and similar contact information dealing with property security. But just about everything else has been fair game.

The new law, if signed by the governor, also closes most access to other private contact information, such as cell phone and unlisted telephone numbers.

While the new law calls for stiffer fines for governments violating the act and makes it easier and cheaper to access records, it also adds restrictions to information regarding public utility, television, Internet or telephone accounts held by private customers.

The email lists have become a potential gold mine for political candidates, said Ed Rigdon, marketing professor at Georgia State’s Robinson College of Business.

“You take something like this, people who express an interest, it suggests that they’re an activist,” he said. “It suggests they might be a conduit, where if you get information to them, it’s not just them, but they’ll spread it around the neighborhood.”

Resident protest of the practice erupted last month when Cobb County emailed residents asking whether they’d like to receive outside material relating to the July transportation sales tax referendum.

“My reaction was to consider whether I wanted to ask Cobb County to delete my email address from any list that it has,” Vinings resident Ron Sifen said. Most offensive to Sifen, though, is that he felt government was being used as a vehicle to advocate a position.

“I think that is harmful to the citizens of Cobb County,” he said.

Cobb County spokesman Robert Quigley said the county receives requests for email lists from stakeholder groups each year. In this latest case, the county received a verbal request from the Metropolitan Atlanta Voter Education Network.

What made this case different was that the county notified subscribers about it. It didn’t have to, and most governments don’t.

MAVEN spokesman Bert Brantley called the whole matter a mistake, adding that he knows people are sensitive about unwanted emails.

“We didn’t intend for any public organization to hand over email lists, so either we mistakenly asked for it or they misread the conversation,” he said. “Either way, there is nothing wrong with what they did and we never received any email addresses.”

It was a different story in Milton last fall when residents were peppered with emails from City Council candidates. Records show three people, including then-City Councilman Alan Tart, formally requested the city’s email lists.

Milton spokesman Jason Wright said the city received about a half dozen complaints about the emails.

“I understand why a lot of this stuff is public record, but it actually discourages people from signing up, which makes it tougher for us to keep them informed,” Assistant City Administrator James Drinkard said.

The revised law will make it easier for local governments to speak with residents in a manner most convenient to them, he added.

“It addresses the primary concerns citizens have,” he said. “They want transparent government, but they want their privacy protected.”

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