I often testify and lecture before public officials and administrators about technology-aided access to public records. I invariably urge that already-computerized public records be made available for public access via the global Internet, without agency fees.

And someone invariably makes some comment about the Internet being only for the elite few -- especially after I recommend fee-free access. My response:

THE "WEALTHY ELITE"

First, they say it's only available to those who are wealthy enough to afford it. But in fact, online access to public records is usually less expensive to the recipient than access to paper copies.

Consider the two kinds of access -- onsite access (somewhere) for review, and access in the form of an actual, removable personal copy.

To simply review a copy, one must go where the copies are located. That may mean the nearest depository library somewhere in the state or federal legislative district. But for most folks -- especially in the case of local agency information -- it means a trip down to the agency offices. At a minimum, this costs gasoline, parking fees (or possible parking tickets for the risk-prone) and possible salary loss. Additional subliminal costs include time away from work (whether home or office), and often the trauma that most citizens incur when having to face an unknown, distant bureaucracy. (Just think of it as akin to visiting an IRS office.)

For most citizens in most urban areas -- where Internet access is rapidly escalating -- the gasoline and parking costs alone would pay for most of the monthly minimum fee for CompuServe or America Online, or for many ISPs (Internet Service Providers) in competitive urban and suburban areas where the majority of the nation's population work and live.

Rural residents (I am one) might have to pay long-distance charges, but the call would almost certainly cost less than the cost of travel and parking, to say nothing of lost daylight on the farm or ranch.

Obtaining a paper copy costs even more -- the cost of xerography or the cost of an entire preprinted book, even though the recipient rarely wants most of its contents. The cost gets even worse if the item is a map or similar oversized image. (We won't even mention the environmental costs of creating the paper, creating the ink and imprinting it, delivering it to the agency, and storing it for the next several centuries in the local landfill.)

And, once acquired, the paper copy

is hard to use. Murphy's Law requires that some or all of the items of interest will not be in the index, and the

10 lengthy excerpts that must be

included in the citizen's work have to be laboriously re-typed, re-proofed and re-corrected.

Contrast these costs with the cost -- if anything -- of logging in from home, office, hotel or transcontinental vacation cottage; "visiting" the agency at whatever hour is most convenient, including evenings, holidays and weekends; and obtaining the information in a form where every word and phrase can be trivially stored, retrieved, searched and even indexed however the user desires it. Rarely needed paper copies can be printed upon demand, and text and images can be easily cut and pasted with unchanged accuracy.

THE "TECHNOLOGICALLY ELITE"

But what about the cost of the computer, modem and online service? Users don't need the latest, greatest PowerMac or Pentium PC to access the Net. There's perfectly good data communications freeware and shareware that runs on some of the oldest computers one can find at a flea market.

Older, slower modems are available for almost nothing. And this year's fireball 28.8 Kbps modems are about the price of a boom box or the cheapest, smallest television.

Monthly access fees in most urban and