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Fear of the Unknown

by Steve Paul Johnson
June 8, 2001

Recently, a guy asked me to remove a cemetery transcription that he authored and submitted. He was concerned that his family would suffer grief from the hands of his pastor. That's right, his pastor of all people.

He created a transcription of his church's cemetery by visiting every headstone and compiling records from the inscriptions, as well as supplementing it with information he found from an older transcription. He compiled just over 1,000 records, and submitted a copy to us for publishing.

But recently, he learned through his sister that his pastor disapproved of this, and was seeking to have this transcription removed. So the author contacted me, and asked us to remove it. Of course, I mentioned that the pastor had no legal ground to stand on, and was just using scare tactics. But, the author was concerned about keeping the good standing his family had with the church. I understood completely, and though I respect his concern for his family, I couldn't help thinking that this valuable resource was lost.

I wondered why the pastor would raise a stink over this. The author did not want to argue with him. I couldn't see an issue about protecting the privacy of dead people. Besides, those people's names and dates are emblazioned on the tombstones where they can viewed by any other member of the public. Heck, if you're dead and you want privacy, you'd be more concerned about the Social Security Death Index.

Perhaps the pastor wanted to produce and sell his own cemetery transcription? I don't know, maybe. If you think about it, a lot of churches out there could compile their marriage, baptism, funeral, and cemetery records, publish them in books, and sell them online. Considering how popular genealogy has become, and how easy it is to sell stuff online, a church could make a lot of "blessings" this way.

Maybe the pastor has something against genealogists. Maybe he didn't want the cemetery transcription online because it was resulting in too many genealogists calling his office, or inviting too many genealogists to trample over his cemetery. Maybe he came into work one day, and found gobs of shaving cream all over his great-grandfather's tombstone.

But probably the real reason is fear. I bet the pastor does not spend much time online, and therefore does not understand the Internet too well. It's old the "fear of the unknown" dilemma. He hears news reports of how hackers are stealing people's credit card numbers, and how photos of nude children are being traded online, and because he has not used the Internet much, he thinks there is some way to track down the credit card numbers of his parishioners by referencing the tombstone inscriptions of his cemetery. He's not sure, so he assumes the worst. And as the saying goes, "You're better off safe than sorry".

I've dealt with other cases where authors felt obligated to remove their transcription from our website. And I honored all their requests, even though I explained that the issue was unfounded or had no merit.

Some years ago, the television news program, "20/20" produced a piece about how the Internet could be used to steal peoples' identities. The piece has been replayed a number of times. They interviewed people who claimed to be skilled in this crime, and explained how they use the Internet as a tool. Interestingly, RootsWeb was mentioned as one of the popular "tools".

I don't disagree that RootsWeb or any other website can be used to steal people's identities. But for us to react by removing genealogical resources will set us back even more. It WAS the Internet that made genealogy as popular as it is today, and because of this new found popularity, we enjoy a wealth of new tools, new publications, more databases, more seminars, and so on.

To say that we should remove genealogical information from the Internet in order to prevent identity theft is like saying we should outlaw the use of message boards because they can teach kids how to blow up federal buildings. Folks, the Internet doesn't turn people into criminals. If someone wants to steal an identity, they'll do it with or without the Internet. It's like the old saying, "Guns don't kill people, people kill people."

A few years ago, President Clinton signed a bill into law called the "Childrens Online Privacy and Protection Act" (COPPA), designed to protect children from being exploited through online means. It was created because there were exaggerated reports of child molesters using online information to track down tens of thousands of potential victims. The law established a series of restrictions and requirements that caused many children-related websites to close up. These were educational, entertainment, and community oriented websites I'm talking about.

But no one could prove that these websites were a primary factor in the molestation of children. That is, of all the reported cases of child molestation, no one could show that a significant number of these crimes were committed as a result of online information. In fact, the majority of cases involved adults who had access to their victims without the aid of the Internet. Yes, there were cases that did involve the Internet, but those cases represented only a fraction of the total cases. But the media got a hold of those cases, blew them out of proportion, and caused moms and dads to go into panic mode. COPPA was a solution waiting for a problem. It was turned into law thanks to unfounded hysteria, and we lost many "made-for-children" websites because of it.

What we cannot afford is to have a similar law preventing or regulating the publishing of genealogical information online. All it takes is one Congressman to become the victim of identity theft, and next thing we know, there will be another law regulating the use of the Internet. It's already illegal to steal identities. We don't need another law telling us how to use the Internet.

I'm saying this because it's turning out that what some people don't know is hurting the rest of us. This kind of panic poses a threat to Interment.net, as well as other online publishers, including Ancestry, RootsWeb, DistantCousin, etc. Ultimately, it spells bad news for all genealogists, even the ones who don't use the Internet. We stand to lose a lot of media and materials both online and offline, if we were prevented from using the Internet the way we use it today.

While I have honored requests from authors to remove transcriptions, I don't want to remove them. To those of you who have submitted transcriptions to us, my hope is that you won't ask me to remove them. While it takes value away from us, it also takes valuable information away from other people. The transcriptions published on our website have already helped hundreds of people, perhaps thousands, in finding the resting places of their friends and family. Taking this information away may mean that some people will never find their loved ones again.

- Steve Paul Johnson

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