Monday, February 25, 2013

Minnesota House subcommittee to consider e-mail address disclosure bill
At stake: Protecting the privacy of city residents

When most Minnesota residents contact city officials by e-mail, they typically don’t know or expect that their e-mail address could be requested by, and given to, another organization or person, for any reason.  Under current state law, though, when a citizen submits contact information to a city or government agency in order to receive newsletters or crime alerts, or to register a complaint, the citizen’s e-mail address and phone number become public data.  Any third party can request the e-mail address or phone number and use it for any purpose, and the city is required by law to comply with the request.

Later this week, the Minnesota House Data Practices Subcommittee will hear testimony on legislation that would change all of that. The House version of the bill, HF 20/SF 60, is authored by Representative Mike Freiberg (DFL-Golden Valley), and would make citizen e-mail addresses and phone numbers private data under the Minnesota Government Data Practices Act.

 The e-mail privacy bill is supported by the League of Minnesota Cities, a municipal association that represents more than 830 city governments in the state. According to League lobbyist Patrick Hynes, “The new bill does not make content private; just the contact information of citizens. It strikes the right balance between government transparency and protecting citizen privacy.”

Over the past few months, several cities received requests for all citizen email addresses maintained by the city.  This has often resulted in unexpected email solicitations.  For example, during a previous legislative hearing on the bill, Assistant City Manager Chuck Ahl of Maplewood testified that his city was recently forced to turn over 6,000 email addresses of Maplewood citizens to a third party.  The email addresses had been collected to help implement Maplewood’s new trash collection system. 

 The House Data PracticesSubcommittee is scheduled to hear the bill on Wednesday, February 27 at 4 p.m.  The Subcommittee will hear a number of data practices bills, and consider which to include in a larger, omnibus bill.  The email privacy bill has received one hearing in the Senate Judiciary Committee, and the Senate bill author Bev Scalze (DFL-Little Canada) expects a second hearing to be scheduled in the coming weeks.