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Press Release

    Tech Bytes - Tid Bits in Tech News: On the question of e-privacy, Dems should heed their own words

    07/12/2000

    “The answer, Dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves.”
    —William Shakespeare, Julius Caesar

    In contemporary politics it is not planetary alignment that dictates action, but polling data. Like the astrologers of times past, pollsters possess remarkable sway over the judgment of their employers. Nowhere is this more evident than in the politics of the vice president. Between vacillations, Gore has demonstrated a penchant for the polemic when polling conditions are ripe, evidenced most recently by his attention to the question of privacy.

    Pollsters are overwhelmed with the intensity of responses received on the subject of online privacy. As with most issues, public opinion and knowledge on the subject have yet to coalesce to form a distinct public sentiment, but it is clear that many Americans are concerned.

    Enter the vice president.

    In a recent speech in California, Gore tried to capitalize on this trend. He proposed to criminalize the sale of Social Security numbers. But Gore’s speech went well beyond the so-called Social Security Number Protection Act of 2000. “We need an electronic bill of rights,” Gore contended, “that recognizes that the right to privacy is a basic American right in the information age.” Gore failed to explain the details of this latest “bill of rights,” but continued by cautioning the crowd of the perils of today’s technology. He warned of the “bad intention(ed)” who can “follow virtual footprints” and “do you harm.” Gore concluded by calling for “tougher laws,” aimed at protecting families, and for legislation aimed at preventing the sale of medical information.

    Not once during the harangue did Gore suggest that people, market dynamics, or new technologies could defend consumers from the “bad intentioned.” No mention was made of a consumer’s ability to set her browser to not accept cookies, or the proliferation of privacy software and privacy-protecting Web sites available. Nor did Gore mention innovations in software that may rectify the situation more favorably than anything government could propose. Instead, the only answers proffered were “tougher laws,” “the best efforts of government,” and, presumably, more regulation.

    It is unsurprising that Gore ignores credible solutions. His bait-and-switch politics identifies voters’ apprehensions and then distinguishes government action as the only way to address these concerns. Gore’s brand of liberalism suggests that unless there is government action, citizens will be subjected to violations of privacy only contemplated by Hollywood. As a recent Financial Times editorial noted of Gore and his Democratic allies’ forays into privacy regulation: “fear is their main weapon.”

    Last month, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer reported, “Democrats in this state are angling to claim [the privacy issue] as their own.” Similarly, The New York Times reported that in her race against incumbent Sen. Spence Abraham (R-MI), Democrat Debbie Stabenow plans to capitalize on privacy concerns.

    From coast to coast, Democrats are following their presidential nominee’s lead. Last month, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer reported, “Democrats in this state are angling to claim [the privacy issue] as their own.” Similarly, The New York Times reported that in her race against incumbent Sen. Spence Abraham (R-MI), Democrat Debbie Stabenow plans to capitalize on privacy concerns.

    Yet, when asked about the relevant privacy considerations, or plans for regulation, Democrats are at a loss. In fact, a trip to a Democratic National Committee (DNC) Web site reveals a different view on privacy altogether. The site, www.freeDem.com, offers subscribers free e-mail and Internet service in exchange for answers on 20 personal questions that range from name and address to income level, type of health care insurance, and ethnicity. These invasive questions are used, according to the site’s privacy policy, “to customize advertising and marketing,” and for “internal research on our visitors’ demographics, interests and behavior.”

    When private business and advertisers use the same information for the same purposes, it’s an “insidious invasion,” but the DNC does it, “to provide you with a customized experience.” The DNC’s privacy policy attempts to reassure the client, but ends by warning: “We reserve the right, at our discretion, to change, modify, add or remove portions of this Privacy Policy at any time.” Some comfort.

    The reality of the privacy debate is that new technology has posed new problems; no one should dispute that. But when Gore and his compatriots demand an “electronic bill of rights,” and exacerbate voters’ concerns to score political points, they adversely affect the technological and market processes that can resolve the problem and pacify uncertainties. Democrats would do better by simply echoing their own privacy policy: “Ultimately, you are solely responsible for maintaining the secrecy of your passwords and/or any account information. Please be careful and responsible whenever you are online.”

    To paraphrase Shakespeare, the answer to the privacy question, Dear Vice President, is not in our polls, but in ourselves.