A privately-owned website that holds Oklahoma court documents behind a paywall has found a new way to monetize public records: Selling advertisements.
Visitors to ODCR.com this week may have noticed a change in the site’s design. Skinny advertisements for national companies like Geico, Amazon or Best Buy appear in prominent locations on the homepage. One advertisement that occasionally appears on the top right corner of the homepage, in a small yellow box, offers “8% bail” at Advantage Bail Bonds. Clicking the advertisement routes users to a dead link.
The ODCR website stores digital records for dozens of Oklahoma Counties going back decades. But to access those records, users must be a member of the Oklahoma Bar Association and must pay a $50 a month subscription fee. The records that are held behind the paywall are public and freely available at their respective county courthouses, but what Kellpro, the company who manages ODCR, offers is convenience. Don’t want to travel to Cherokee County to pick up court records? If you’re an attorney and have $600 a year to spend, you can access decades of documents online.
The collection and monetization of public records is nothing new. The most obvious example, perhaps, is Oklahoma Jailbirds, a publication that collects mugshots, sells advertisements and then puts them all in a print product sold mostly in convenience stores.
The difference between that relationship and the relationship between the state and Kellpro is that in this case the government has contracted with an outside business to act as a records gatekeeper, said Mark Thomas, the executive vice president of the Oklahoma Press Association.
Thomas said it would be like if the Oklahoma Medical Examiner’s Office contracted its autopsy reports to be held by a private company.
“And then if you wanted an autopsy report you have to go to this outside company’s website, and be bombarded by advertisements for funeral homes,” Thomas said.
Thomas called it “an ugly look,” and said that the state, by virtue of its relationship with Kellpro, had created a system where it was essentially allowing public records to be sold back to the public.
“If the records are there, you should be able to get them from the government,” Thomas said. “In this case, you’re being told, if you want to get them, you have to either come to us, or pay someone else to give them to you. That’s not right.”
The advertisements that are now appearing on ODCR come with their own potential problems, as well.
Users who click on individual cases within ODCR will sometimes see Google advertisements that appear to be misleading, tricking users into thinking they must be clicked on in order to use the website. For instance, an ad that almost always appears within individual cases on ODCR has a large green button that says “ACCESS COURT RECORDS,” and small text telling users that they must agree not to use the records they access to “stalk” or “harass” the people involved. Oftentimes court records appear on ODCR or OSCN, the state run Oklahoma Supreme Court Network, unredacted, leaving addresses, phone numbers or even social security numbers visible.
Some counties such as Tulsa have stopped posting court records for violent crimes like murder online, fearing that identifying information could be found and used for retaliation. And recently in Norman, a city councilor there allegedly had her prior arrest report released on social media by local law enforcement, documents that contained her home address. She said last month her neighbor was sexually assaulted not long after the documents were posted on social media, and she believed she was the intended target.
While the vast majority of the ads appearing on ODCR appear to be Google Ads, there are links on the website offering to sell ads to private companies as well. Users who have a paid login never see the ads. Conversely, users without a paid login never see the records.
“Advertising on ODCR.com is an awesome way to get exposure to a wide audience,” a section on the website offering pricing details for advertisement space states. “We serve an average of 17,700 unique visitors every day. You will be able to get the word out quickly about who you are and what you provide.”
For $200 a month, a company can advertise in a small box 120×90 pixels in size, with space for 100 characters of explainer text next to the image.
“Your ad is the only premium advertisement shown on the page at any given time,” the website states. “We rotate advertisements completely equally so we guarantee that your advertisement is getting it’s (sic) fair share of screen time.”
Leah McCann, an executive assistant and Human Resources Lead for Kellpro, told The Frontier on Wednesday that the advertisements had only begun to appear on ODCR this week.
“It’s just another avenue of looking at revenue, so we thought we’d try this and see what the results were,” McCann said.
Jari Askins, Oklahoma’s director of courts, told The Frontier she wasn’t aware of the advertisements on ODCR, but that since it was privately operated, she had no control over what Kellpro could or couldn’t do.
In 2007 Oklahoma began the process of constructing a unified court records database dubbed the “Unified Case Management System.” A $15 fee was added to most court filings in order to fund the system, which was supposed to centralize public court records and make them available online. But 13 years later, the system has still never gotten off the ground, at least not in the way originally intended.
Askins said the system is now called OCIS, and is an internal system for use only by courthouse personnel like judges. She said that’s because some of the records might be mental health records or things not typically released to the public.
“OCIS is more of a behind-the-curtain thing,” Askins said. “It’s stuff judges might have access to that the public won’t have access to. It’s basically the in-house side of OSCN.”
Askins said that her office believes OSCN, which is operated by the state and hosts many court records online for free, meets the statutory requirements of what was intended to build the Unified Case Management System.
For the most part, OSCN and ODCR serviced different counties. Larger counties, like Tulsa County and Oklahoma County, had records freely available on OSCN, while records for many other counties — mostly smaller and rural ones — were available for a price on ODCR.
Askins said that in 2016 her office began to work with Kellpro so that any document scanned in by them would be backed up and available to the state-run court network. In theory, that would mean that any court record scanned in by Kellpro to ODCR after 2016 would be available on OSCN, meeting the intended goal of making all public court records available to Oklahomans for all 77 counties.
But in practice that’s still not true. For instance, Muskogee County has historically had its records held on ODCR. Under a centralized system any record scanned in from that county to a Kellpro network would then be available on OSCN. But that hasn’t happened.
Since July 1 there have been about 30 criminal felony charges filed in Muskogee. None of the documents in any case appear on OSCN, where they would be free. Instead, only ODCR users who have agreed to pay $600 a year have access to those records.