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
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
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.
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