The Doxing Dilemma – Should Public Records Be Protected Against Malicious Use?
By Rachel Bender Turpin
The Seattle Times recently published an article about two Facebook pages that had posted the names, email addresses, and phone numbers of state residents who had reported businesses to the State of Washington for allegedly violating Governor Jay Inslee’s Stay Home – Stay Healthy Order (the “Governor’s Order”). One group to post such information shared the contact information for these residents along with this message: “Want to snitch on your neighbor? Don’t expect to hide behind you (sic) computer screen.” A number of people have reported harassment and threats of violence against them as a result of having their information shared online in this manner.
These residents’ contact information was likely legally obtained through public records requests to the State, which reports having received several requests for the records of all complaints for potential violations of the Governor’s Order. Some of the residents who have received threats claim that they were unaware their contact information would be subject to public disclosure at the time their complaints were made and expressed disappointment in the state of Washington for not making this apparent. The State has since revised the online complaint form to clearly state that the information submitted through the form is subject to public release and that individuals may also submit complaints anonymously.
This issue raises a bigger question relating to public disclosure in Washington; should it be legal for requesters to seek or use public records for the purpose of doxing others? Doxing is the practice of researching and publicly broadcasting private or identifying information about an individual online, in order to publicly shame or harass those individuals. While the Washington State Public Records Act (RCW 42.56) prohibits the disclosure of lists of individuals for commercial purposes, it provides no similar protection for lists of individuals—or other information—being requested for doxing or other non-commmerical, but potentially criminal, purposes. Nor is injunctive relief available to most victims of public records-related threats and harassment; currently, the Public Records Act only provides that persons serving criminal sentences may be enjoined from obtaining public records for the purpose of harassing or intimidating others. See RCW 42.56.565.
For years, public entities subject to the Public Records Act have lobbied the State Legislature for relief from harassing requesters to no avail. Perhaps this recent use of public records to dox and harass individuals for reporting potential violations of the Governor’s Order will be the impetus for the Legislature to act.