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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