The times, they are a'changin'. You already knew that, and I apologise if you feel patronised by the assertion. I also apologise if you now have Bob Dylan's voice stuck in your head. I once had a hideously scrambled version of Subterranean Homesick Blues going round in my head for days, until I eventually had to put the CD on to find out what the lyrics really are. It didn't help.
But I digress. There was a time when the place you went to find information was a library. Libraries were full of books, or in more recent times, microfilm readers. These enable you to quickly and easily destroy your eyes by trying to read miniaturised newspapers. All the information that has ever been made public can be accessed through this tedious process.
But that old road is rapidly fading. A Web-based service has been launched called "CrimeNet", which enables you, in the comfort of your own home, to search through the archives of newspapers and other public records to find the names of convicted criminals. It has everyone from Attorneys-General to civil liberties groups up in arms calling for its closure.
A recent trial in South Australia was aborted and the jury dismissed because the state Attorney General felt that information published on CrimeNet could be prejudicial to the case. If jurors read it, they would find that the defendant in the case had a previous conviction and this might predispose them to a guilty verdict.
But the information on CrimeNet is all a matter of public record, and the jurors could find it if they went to the library and spun their heads out reading microfilms. All CrimeNet does is make it easier. Not a lot easier, mind you - it's not like representatives of CrimeNet were setting up kiosks in the jury room. You still have to go looking.
And, remember, it's the Web. We in "the industry" take the Web for granted and rattle off URLs as easily as phone numbers. The average juror still has little idea how to go about finding stuff online. The South Australian case didn't involve John Laws broadcasting the defendant's criminal record, nor did Who Weekly publish their picture on the cover then distribute poster-sized enlargements for newsagents' windows. It's just the Web.
CrimeNet's stated aim is to "provide you with the information you need to protect yourself". That is, if someone's moved into the neighbourhood and you don't like the look of them, you can go look them up on CrimeNet and be assured they're not all that harmful. I did a search on CrimeNet for a person I knew to be a "prominent racing identity", based on frequent coverage of their activities on the evening news. I paid my six bucks for the search, only to find that this person, often reported to be "assisting in inquiries", has a single conviction, related to harassing a ventriloquist. I didn't even know it was illegal to harass ventriloquists. They're like mimes, aren't they?But my point is that this information was not readily available to me, nor would it be available to any juror. CrimeNet even carries disclaimers to the effect that information on the site should not be accessed by jurors, and that the information should not be taken as an indication that the person is guilty of a criminal offence (it doesn't, for instance, indicate if convictions are overturned on appeal). These disclaimers are not sufficient for the lawmakers, though. Publication is publication, and publication of information sub judice is contempt.
This has worrying implications for you guys, believe it or not. Many retailers have policies to match competitors' advertised prices. This way you don't lose customers because of one-off deals, and you gain loyalty through a reputation for having the lowest price. But the CrimeNet case throws doubt on the definition of an advertised price. It's likely these days that you and your competitors have Web sites, listing the prices of just about everything in stock. Does publishing your prices on the Web count as advertising? You offer the best price you can, given your costs, but what if your competitor has a better deal with the distributor and a lower price? Are you obliged to match the price (which may mean a loss on the sale) or lose loyalty if you don't price match? If you drop your price-matching policy, what then?Maybe I'm speculating more wildly than usual, and maybe these issues will never arise in retail. But the woes of CrimeNet suggest that maybe, someday, when you least expect it, they will. And when they do, you should be ready. Start swimming now or you'll sink like a stone.
Matthew JC. Powell is blowing in the wind. Catch him on firstname.lastname@example.org