Advertising and Privacy: No Right to Control What You Give Away

by on August 12, 2009 · 27 comments

In my last post, I touted an often-ignored benefit of targeted ads: that they directly enhance the browsing experience, compared to seeing dumb ads. This post argues that no one has a “right to her data” that ad-targeting takes away.

“Privacy” is a word of many meanings. The best explanation of the myriad ways the word has been used I’ve seen came from TLF’s own Jim Harper five years ago. People have a right to privacy in some senses, but not in others. They have a justice-based right (a political moral right) to freedom from government intrusion – the broad sense of privacy espoused in cases like Lawrence v. Texas. And they have a justice-based right to not have to give up information about themselves to the government, the sort of right violated by NSA wiretapping and that should be protected by the Fourth Amendment – the kind of right espoused in cases like Katz v. United States.

We do not have any justice-based right, however, to control what is done with those things we voluntarily give away to private individuals. If I sell you or give you my laptop, without any restrictions on your use, I have no rights-based complaint if you use it to do something I find objectionable, such as reading Perez Hilton. Nor do I have a rights-based complaint if you take the information I left on it and use it for your purposes. Even if that information is about me.

Of course, depending on the information and how you use it, you may be a bad person for using it; it may even in a sense be immoral for you to use it in that way. But it’s not immoral in the justice-based way, in the political-moral sense, as government rights-violations are. You do not deserve to be fined (have your property, to which you have rights, taken from you) or thrown in jail (have your liberty, to which you have rights, taken from you) for such actions. Perhaps you deserve to be denounced, boycotted, ostracized, etc. But, unless you have violated my rights, you do not deserve to have your rights violated in return.

Voluntarily selling or giving away a laptop with information on it is the same thing as voluntarily sending that information through data pipes that someone else owns, but you’ve contracted to use, to a third party such as a website. If you give your data away to Google, Google can use them as it sees fit. Perhaps not without being evil (though, if the company – with your consent – anonomizes the information and uses it to enhance your browsing experience, that doesn’t really seem evil to me), but definitely without violating your rights. Sending your data to a website is giving it away. If you do not want to give it away, don’t. Some websites may not let you access them, or not let you access certain features on them, unless you give them your data. (Indeed, the Internet is structured so that if you want to access any website you have to transfer some data, unless you’re using one of the clever tricks we discuss here.) Too bad. You make the call. If you decide that the benefits of Gmail outweigh the “privacy” costs, you don’t have any complaint that Google has violated your rights.

When government takes your data, they do it without your consent. You don’t “give it away”; it is taken from you. (More often, the government takes data about you from another source that actually posseses the data, either directly by theft or by a coerced agreement. Whether your rights or the possessors’ rights were the ones violated is another matter, and irrelevant for these purposes.)

But what websites do with “your” data (the data that you voluntarily gave them in exchange for accessing their sites) is a matter you may be concerned about, but it is not a matter for government intervention. Talk to your content providers, not to your Congressperson.

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