The Great Privacy Debate on WSJ

by on August 7, 2010 · 16 comments

I have a piece on Internet privacy in the Wall Street Journal today. It’s one side of a “debate” on Internet privacy and tracking. I say be careful what you give up if you thwart online tracking—personalization, free content, and other goodies may go by the wayside.

My “opponent” is Nicholas Carr, whose identity and arguments I didn’t know as I wrote, nor likely did he mine. His is a good piece that lays out the many legitimate concerns with online tracking. Must be nice to be the maximal-privacy “good guy”!

For the sake of making it interesting I’ll pick out one important point that highlights the nub of the issue.

Privacy tradeoffs have always been a part of life, Carr says, “But now, thanks to the Net, we’re losing our ability to understand and control those tradeoffs—to choose, consciously and with awareness of the consequences, what information about ourselves we disclose and what we don’t.”

This sentence brought back to me a memorable moment from law school. In a seminar course, the professor called upon a fellow student who rather dopily apologized, “Sorry, I didn’t have time to do the reading.”

“In fact you did have time to do the reading,” replied the teacher, “but you just didn’t take it. Isn’t that correct?”

It was funny, if embarrassing for my colleague, and a great illustration of precision with language.

Holding to that standard of precision, I’ll disagree with Carr’s statement: The Net is not affecting our ability to understand and control privacy tradeoffs. Its development has outstripped that capacity. Developing consumers’ understanding of information flows, information uses, and consequences will position them to restore privacy.

I don’t think Carr would disagree with that sentiment in the main. Later he says, agreeably to me, “We need to take personal responsibility for the information we share whenever we log on.”

And I do think that’s the heart of the problem: “Education is the hard way, and it is the only way, to get consumers’ privacy interests balanced with their other interests.”

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  • jal

    “Developing consumers’ understanding of information flows, information uses, and consequences will position them to restore privacy.”

    This is an interesting flip into the passive voice.

    So, who or what exactly will do this developing?

  • Jim Harper


  • Steve R.

    Really there are two parties to the privacy debate, the consumer who discloses and the entity that collects the information. Responsibility for privacy should not be unilaterally dumped on the consumer. The entities that collect the information should also be accountable and accept responsibility for managing private data.

  • Jim Harper

    There is no entity that collects private data if you don't share it.

  • Steve R.

    True in a absolute literal sense. However, we don't live in total isolation. Realistically we need to share information for both social and commercial reasons. You are also correct to say that the ultimate responsibility on what to disclose belongs to the consumer. Nevertheless, those who acquire information should be bound to treat the data in a responsible manner. A society that has only rights without corresponding responsibility is doomed to failure.

  • Jharper

    Agreed, if you share it, the recipient should handle it responsibly — which means consistent with implied and explicit contractual promises, non-tortiously, and so on. Your gun example, um . . . isn't terribly helpful.

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  • jal

    I assume this is in response to me.

    So, to rephrase your post, everything is just fine. No need to do anything. Everyone will eventually develop understanding through market mechanisms, even if change is outpacing ability to understand.

    …Which, of course, many don't find terribly helpful, thus, the proposal for a subset of “everyone” to “do something”. Taking your above reply to Steve R., it becomes to come down to what “responsibly” means.

    I know you wish to keep things in the libertarian realm of contract and tort, and beg forgiveness rather than ask permission. But that still leaves the nasty edge cases – bankrupt companies selling sensitive data (“sue me”) as just one example. So I wonder if you'd get behind the idea of a privacy bond. Companies put up a chunk of cash against the promise not to disclose, or to disclose inaccurately, or to the wrong people.

    I'd actually really like to see this happen with credit reporting agencies, and perhaps banks.

  • Jim Harper

    The Disqus comment function is crap. If you set it to show “oldest first,” you'll see that it was indeed in response to yours.

    Rephrasing my post to set up your preferred argument against it is not very useful. Should I rephrase your comment in the worst possible light and then answer that? No, because that would be asinine.

    When I suggest that it's everyone's responsibility to educate themselves and everyone else about how things work and how to protect privacy, that's hardly “everything is just fine.”

    Why don't you tell me more about this case in which a bankrupt company sold sensitive data. We'll look into the facts as opposed to the rumor and see what we learn.

  • Jim Harper

    I should add: If consumers prefer companies that choose to back privacy promises with a bond, that sounds like a win-win solution.

  • Jim Harper

    Fair inferences from jal's non-response include: 1) jal didn't ask Disqus to note new comments and he didn't check back; 2) jal is uninterested in examining the facts, preferring the “meme” that bankrupt companies sell sensitive data; 3) There is no case in which a bankrupt company sold sensitive data.

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