January 8, 2004 11:06 AM PST

Treasury breaks word on e-mail anonymity

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The U.S. Treasury Department plans to publish nearly 10,000 e-mail addresses on the Web, violating its privacy promise to Americans who used e-mail to comment on a government proceeding.

In March 2003, the Treasury Department's Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) asked for e-mail comments about a proposal that could raise the price of malt beverages like Bacardi Breezer and Smirnoff Ice. At the time, the department said that the text of comments would be made public--but assured people that e-mail addresses, home addresses and other personal information of individuals would be removed first.

"For the convenience of the public, we will...post comments received in response to this notice on the TTB Web site," the initial notice said. "All comments posted on our Web site will show the name of the commenter, but will not show street addresses, telephone numbers, or e-mail addresses." The TTB is the successor to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, portions of which are now part of the Department of Homeland Security.

As news of the proposed regulations circulated around malt beverage aficionados online, word-of-mouth took over and comments started flooding in to nprm@ttb.gov. By October, the Treasury Department had received about 9,900 e-mail messages, plus 4,800 comments sent through the U.S. mail or fax--and decided it could no longer keep its promise.

"The unusually large number of comments received...has made it difficult to remove all street addresses, telephone numbers and e-mail addresses from the comments for posting on our Internet Web site in a timely manner," the Treasury Department said in a follow-up notice, published last month in the Federal Register. "Therefore, to ensure that the public has Internet access to the thousands of comments received...at the earliest practicable time, we will post comments received on that notice on our Web site in full, including any street addresses, telephone numbers, or e-mail addresses contained in the comments."

The notice did say that Americans who submitted comments could ask that their personal information be removed. The deadline to request a removal was Dec. 23.

The Treasury Department did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Thursday. The proposal in question would change the tax rates for flavored malt beverages, which combine beer and distilled spirits, based on the percentage of distilled spirits in the drink.

Jim Harper, editor of the Privacilla.org privacy advocacy site, says "Treasury's privacy promise included an important unwritten caveat: 'Unless keeping this promise is inconvenient.'"

Americans who submitted comments relied on the federal government's privacy promise, Harper said. "Now, they may get phone calls, letters, or spam. Merchants who commented may be picketed or boycotted. It's precisely when an issue is controversial that privacy promises are most important."

The Treasury Department's decision comes after the U.S. Forest Service proposed to limit the influence of "substantially similar" comments--especially those submitted through e-mail--in its own regulatory procedures.

 

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