TCS Daily


Missing Manners

By Sonia Arrison - May 16, 2003 12:00 AM

In a recent column, Judith Martin, otherwise known as "Miss Manners," pondered "why a society composed of people angling to get on television to confess their disappointments or, now that we have reality television, demonstrate their shortcomings, would defend privacy with a straight face."

The answer is that different motivations drive arguments in favor of privacy, which makes it easy for individuals to appear hopelessly inconsistent on the matter. Miss Manners herself hit on one of the many perspectives when she mentioned a recent court case brought by Catherine Zeta-Jones and Michael Douglas, who were outraged when paparazzi managed to sneak into their wedding and snap unauthorized photos.

"It was not exactly a case of wanting to be married away from prying strangers," Miss Manners pointed out, "as the couple had sold photographic rights to their wedding for millions." But it was a case of the inability to control and profit from one's image.

Not only was Zeta-Jones upset about the way the unauthorized photos made her look, but the magazine that had paid for the rights wasn't too pleased either. In the end, the British judge ruled that the publisher of the unauthorized pictures was liable because it violated "confidence," knowing that publishing the photos would cause financial damage to the authorized magazine.

In this case, there was financial harm and, Miss Manners also points out, it was certainly a breach of etiquette. But there are other reasons that drive some to call for greater privacy rights, including distaste for capitalism.

For example, a coalition of left-leaning consumer groups recently filed a complaint against Amazon.com because they said it wasn't being careful enough in making sure that children don't post to the company's web site without the consent of their parents. But Amazon.com is simply the latest target in the crusade by these groups to make their anti-capitalist ideas the norm.

The mission of one of the groups is to "keep commercial culture within its proper sphere." Another is concerned with "realistic assessments of power, promise, and problems of information technology." These missions reveal their genuine motivations.

The major impetus behind this particular cry for privacy is an argument that businesses shouldn't be allowed to make money off gathering information about others - even if others are happy with those actions. But some in the group have made a more sophisticated argument.

Chris Hoofnagle of the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) argues that consumers don't really want personalization and the data collection that it requires.

For proof, Hoofnagle cites studies from the Harvard Business Review and Wharton Strategic Management, but it's difficult to understand why companies would be doing it if someone weren't interested.

The good news for Hoofnagle is that if those studies are correct, the market will lead companies to do what he hopes and stop personalizing services. This, however, is unlikely, as large numbers of consumers appear willing to trade data about themselves for goods and services. But there is more to the privacy issue than consumer sales and convenience.

A third reason that motivates some to support privacy rights is the very serious issue of government intrusion. Since the terrorist attacks of 9/11, government agencies have sought to create large databases on as many individuals as possible. It is unsettling that the FBI and Department of Homeland Security have been quietly buying data from other governments, particularly Latin America, as well as the American private sector.

While fighting terrorism is extremely important, it is far from clear that new mega-databases will make the world a safer place. The news that scads of people now have problems flying because they have been mistakenly put on government watch lists that they can't get off seems pathetic given that basic technological safeguards, like matching checked luggage to actual passengers, still aren't required in the United States.

The reality is that both before and after 9/11, the legitimate privacy threats - those that one cannot escape by walking away or using technology to block data collection - come from government. Only government has the power to collect data against an individual's will and put someone in jail on the basis of poorly managed databases. Even someone who pours his or her heart out on a reality show understands that government abuse of data is a real threat.

There are many motivations for supporting privacy rights, but over time it should become clear that while anti-capitalism notions are empty, the forces in favor of liberty are strong.

What this says for public policy is that there should be strict controls over what data government can access. What it tells Miss Manners is that etiquette is only one very small part of the privacy equation.
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