posted Feb 06, 2001

Privacy problems? Yeah, the Free Market can fix that!
Privacy from Companies
2/6/2001; 9:40:17 AM It's linked on Slashdot, so I feel I have to reply to "The Privacy Cage" by Julian Sanchez in Liberzine. Basically, the essay suggests that the Free Market can solve all of our privacy woes, but in the process tilts with strawmen and seems to be coming from another planet... 'Since users in online interactions have de facto control over what information they will make available, they will have what amount to property rights in interactions where they demand them. If an online merchant charges too much money for a product, you don't have to buy. And you can refuse to deal just as easily if he's "charging" too much in the currency of private information.' If users had real control over their privacy, de facto or otherwise, there would be no concern over privacy issues. We do not currently have effective control over our privacy or this debate wouldn't be occurring. 'If I don't care about getting a bit more junk mail, I may allow a site to make money renting out my address in exchage for a discount. If I am more scupulous about guarding my secrets, I will share information only with sites which guarantee that I'll retain a high level of control over it.' There is currently no guarentee that we will retain that level of control in the long-term. The Toysmart case taught companies something... admit up front that your policies might change in the future, and none of your current customers will care until it's too late to do anything. Meanwhile, the customers have no guarentees of privacy while looking like there is one. The article also almost completely ignores the practical aspects of implementing a market system... which are vitally important to discuss because the smallest details of the practical system affect how it will work and how well it will work. Can people use it, or is it too complicated? Is the control granular enough to be useful? How will it be enforced? By law, by voluntary agreement? Can Joe User be tricked into giving out more information then he intends? Who controls the currency of the market (the data)? You can't simply "empower" the user, because once a company has the data, they can sell it. Who stops them? Without some sort of practical groundwork, this essay is a meaningless puff piece, capable only of stirring debate, but not really participating in it. The only practical solution mentioned is the horribly flawed P3P. To be fair, perhaps if the author made it ten or twenty times as long and did more then casually dismiss the arguments of a lot of other smart people (which the author did far too breezily for my comfort), it might make more sense. But the essay would still suffer the fatal flaw of attacking a straw man: 'If privacy ceases to be about individuals choosing how much information about themselves to release, and beomes instead a one-size-fits-all standard, then privacy is no longer a form of freedom. It's a cage.' I am still unaware of any privacy advocates who seriously believe that people must be disallowed from sharing their personal info with others. Yes, there are those like Shapiro who question whether Joe Public is capable of guarding his own privacy, but that's still not the same as claiming that Joe's decisions ought to be made for him (Sanchez glosses over this difference). Sanchez clearly does not understand the people he attacks.


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