Tech Bytes – Tid bits in Tech News: Good Intentions and Privacy Commission Politics

The road to bad policy is paved with good intentions. The privacy commission legislation defeated earlier this week by the House is an example of how election-year posturing often perverts good intentions.

Privacy is perhaps the issue that would benefit most from a clear explanation to consumers. The issue is vast, the opinions are diverse, the details, complex. Add to this an upcoming election, where factual truth often takes a back seat to rhetorical spin, and there is potential for real damage.

Recognizing the complexities of the debate, the Privacy Commission Act was introduced last spring. This bill would set up a commission to study the many facets of the debate, and determine what kind of regulation – if any at all – may be needed. A similar commission saw light in the 1970s, and led the federal government to adopt standards as to how its agencies collect and share personal information.

With contradiction built into the bill itself, it became little more than a chance for each side to claim victory right before the election, no matter the bill’s fate.

The original privacy commission refrained from suggesting regulations be imposed upon the private sector, because the wide variety of private sector relationships would render any attempt either futile or overbearing. It is unlikely this new commission would reach the same conclusion, despite tremendous improvement of private-sector privacy practices, an increased awareness on the part of consumers, and technological advances that empower individuals to control their own privacy.

Unfortunately, pro-regulatory forces hijacked the legislation and amended the bill to state that the commission’s existence should not prevent Congress from passing privacy-related legislation before the commission issues a report. With contradiction built into the bill itself, it became little more than a chance for each side involved to claim victory right before the election, no matter the bill’s fate.

The Privacy Commission Act’s primary meritorious aspect was that it would have blocked any attempt to attach worse legislation to one of the appropriations bills working their way through Congress. Some of the more absurd ideas presented by politicians eager to capitalize on this issue include a ban on internet “cookies,” the innocuous files used to customize sites and target advertising, and a requirement for commercial websites to post notice of their privacy practices as well as offer consumers a choice of how the information collected is used.

These myopic proposals show why the issue needs more study. They may make good election-year sound bites, but upon deeper inspection their flaws become apparent.

Without cookies, many of the benefits enjoyed by web surfers, such as free news portals and free email, would be more costly or simply cease to exist. For those paranoid about advertisers using cookies to profile them, numerous products exist today that crumble cookies into digital crumbs; many are available free of charge.

Government-mandated notice and choice are likewise moot issues. A commercial website lacking a privacy notice should be a red flag to consumers suggesting their money is better spent elsewhere. And choice is an inherent part of a competitive marketplace. A website that does not already offer its customers the ability to decline information sharing will lose business to competitors that do offer their patrons this choice.

The stage is set for a vigorous privacy debate next year. Hopefully, those in the debate will take the time to understand the complex details involved, and refrain from regulating something they do not fully understand.