Today Reason has published my policy paper addressing privacy concerns created by search, social networking and Web-based e-commerce in general.
These web sites have been in regulatory crosshairs for some time, although Congress and the Federal Trade Commission have been hesitant to push forward with restrictive legislation such as “Do Not Track” and mandatory opt-in or top-down mandates such as the White House drafted “Privacy Bill of Rights.” An the U.S. seems unwilling to go to the lengths Europe is, contemplating such unworkable rules like demanding an “Internet eraser button”—a sort of online memory hole that would scrub any information about you that is accessible on the Web, even if it is part of the public record.
In my paper, It’s Not Personal: The Dangers of Misapplied Policies to Search, Social Media and Other Web Content, I discuss the difficulty of regulating personal disclosure because different people have different thresholds for privacy. We all know people who refuse to go on Facebook because they are wary of allowing too much information about themselves to circulate. Where it gets dicey is when authority figures take a paternalistic attitude and start deciding what information I will not be allowed to share, for what they claim is my own good.
Top down mandates really don’t work, mainly because popular attitudes are always in flux. Offer me 50 percent off on a hotel room, and I may be willing to tell you where I’m vacationing. Find me interesting books and movies, and I may be happy to let you know my favorite titles.
Instead, ground-up guidelines that arise as users become more comfortable with the medium, and sites work to establish trust, work better. True, Google and Facebook often push the envelope in trying to determine where user boundaries are, but pull back when run into user protest. And when the FTC took up Google’s and Facebook’s practices, while the agency shook a metaphorical finger at both companies’ aggressiveness, it assessed no fines or penalties, essentially finding that no consumer harm was done.
This course has been wise. The willingness of users to exchange information about themselves in return for value is an important element of e-commerce. It is worth considering some likely consequences if the government pushes too hard to prevent sites from gathering information about users.
Continue reading →