I have always found it strange that the ACLU speaks with two voices when it comes to user empowerment as a response to government regulation of the Internet. That is, when responding to government efforts to regulate the Internet for online safety or speech purposes, the ACLU stresses personal responsibility and user empowerment as the first-order response. But as soon as the conversation switches to online advertising and data collection, the ACLU suggests that people are basically sheep who can’t possibly look out for themselves and, therefore, increased Internet regulation is essential. They’re not the only ones adopting this paradoxical position. In previous essays I’ve highlighted how both EFF and CDT do the same thing. But let me focus here on ACLU.
Writing today on the ACLU “Free Future” blog, ACLU senior policy analyst Jay Stanley cites a new paper that he says proves “the absurdity of the position that individuals who desire privacy must attempt to win a technological arms race with the multi-billion dollar internet-advertising industry.” The new study Stanley cites says that “advertisers are making it impossible to avoid online tracking” and that it isn’t paternalistic for government to intervene and regulate if the goal is to enhance user privacy choices. Stanley wholeheartedly agrees. In this and other posts, he and other ACLU analysts have endorsed greater government action to address this perceived threat on the grounds that, in essence, user empowerment cannot work when it comes to online privacy.
Again, this represents a very different position from the one that ACLU has staked out and brilliantly defended over the past 15 years when it comes to user empowerment as the proper and practical response to government regulation of objectionable online speech and pornography. For those not familiar, beginning in the mid-1990s, lawmakers started pursuing a number of new forms of Internet regulation — direct censorship and mandatory age verification were the primary methods of control — aimed at curbing objectionable online speech. In case after case, the ACLU rose up to rightly defend our online liberties against such government encroachment. (I was proud to have worked closely with many former ACLU officials in these battles.) Most notably, the ACLU pushed back against the Communications Decency Act of 1996 (CDA) and the Child Online Protection Act of 1998 (COPA) and they won landmark decisions for us in the process. Continue reading →