How Involved Should The Government Be In Protecting Online Privacy?

from the hands-on,-hands-off dept

The Economist is having one of its regular debates, this time on the question of whether or not governments should do more to protect online privacy. Speaking for the motion that government should do more is Marc Rotenberg of EPIC, while arguing that there are better ways to protect your privacy than expecting your government to help you is Jim Harper from the Cato Institute. Right now more people are siding with Rotenberg, but it seems like a classic “oh, somebody has to protect me!” sort of response. Harper’s arguments make a lot more sense to me, with the key point being: do you really trust the government to protect your privacy?

The American government, like others around the world, is a voracious information collector. It facilitates and promotes private-sector tracking and surveillance. It skirts and sometimes violates laws intended to restrain its snooping, and it cannot be held accountable when it does.

This does not seem like the kind of institution one would turn to for privacy protection. “Independent privacy agencies” and government bodies like the tiny, well-meaning American Federal Trade Commission do not tip the balance the other way.

Rotenberg responds that individuals really can’t do much in response, and uses the example of Google Buzz’s privacy screwup as an example. But, the response to that sort of proves Harper’s point rather than Rotenberg’s. Right after Google screwed up with the Buzz launch, in a manner that caused serious privacy concerns, the public and the press responded within hours, calling out Google for what it had done, and forcing Google to backtrack almost immediately and admit that it had screwed up. What more could the government have done? If it was solely up to the government, there would have been a months (years?) long investigation, and finally some sort of wrist-slap and a fine. The public response to Google’s misstep and the concerns that raised among many people about their privacy in using Google seemed to function fine, and should (one hopes) cause Google to think a lot more carefully before making a similar mistake in the future.

Either way, as with all of the Economist’s debates, there’s a lot of interesting discussion going on, not just between the two main participants, but in the discussion section as well.

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Comments on “How Involved Should The Government Be In Protecting Online Privacy?”

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Jim Harper (profile) says:

So everyone go vote "No" in support of Jim right now!

[Caution: That subject line was a little self-serving.]

I’ve just submitted my final statement in the debate, which goes up at Thursday, with a “decision” to be rendered on Friday. You can vote (or change your vote) any time before then.

I don’t expect to win — too many people want privacy protection to be a free lunch handily provided by a few governmental tweaks. But it’s a fun debate format, and a good opportunity to sort through some of the issues.

Anonymous Coward says:

We should engage the government to change laws to make it easier to be more private.

Well like net neutrality or competition in networks that will not happen in the U.S. unless the old players go under or have a very hard competition ahead of them which will not come from any small group, that can be swamped with regulations, exhausted by infinity lawsuits.

But in other countries, people can make a difference.

Steve R. (profile) says:

Wrong Question

Instead of phrasing this as a question of government intrusion for “protecting us”, we should be asking why private enterprise does not step-up to the plate and accept responsibility for protecting the private data that they hold. Rotenberg, for example, wrote “it is hard to imagine that the typical internet user can really do much to safeguard their privacy when companies purposefully make it so difficult.” The issue should not be “somebody should protect me”, but it should be that the other guy should behave himself.

The US it seems has become an entitlement culture where vultures can circle the consumer to pick them clean without any repercussion. Why should it be the sole responsibility of the consumer to protect themselves? If companies don’t accept the responsibility of protecting data, then they should be regulated through government intervention.

Christopher (profile) says:

Re: Wrong Question

True. Every single bit of information that these companies get should be encrypted OUT THE WAZOO so that a malefactor cannot use them, even if they DO manage to break into the systems of these companies.

Now, can the government do something to help this? Sure can, buddy! They can require 512-bit encryption on everything on servers, with rotating encryption keys.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Wrong Question

That is not true, citizens are dependent on services provided by others and in order to get those services companies extract private information from them, can you buy anything without giving private information?

I like both arguments they both have good points the solution is not one or another but a mix of the 2, people can do more to be more private to a certain degree but pass that we need the other parties to take care of that information, that they are being entrusted, now will it happen voluntarily or we need laws for that?

What kind of mechanism or environment would produce the desired outcomes?

Jes Lookin says:

It's Control, Not Privacy

Even though most online users seem to avoid and not use the tools that would help with privacy, those that would face very limited options. There are non-fixable holes in the hardware, operating system, and software of their personal systems. Then you have the holes in the online infrastructure. These are largely intentional and intended specifically for monitoring and control (directly or legally). Until there are specific and enforced laws across the corporatocracy and governments putting privacy and freedom first, get used to having no privacy in online communication.

Pixelation says:


Big business being responsible for online privacy is also the fox running the hen house and a really bad idea.
We need more control over the information that is collected and stored about us. Information collected by a site should be opt-in if you don’t mind not opt-out if you do. Credit card information should be stored only as long as the site needs it to complete a transaction unless you want them to keep it for future use.

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