Politics & Privacy


New developments in the online-privacy debate are threatening to push federal and state bureaucrats’ desire for regulatory control to critical mass.  Not only are new Internet privacy regulations unnecessary and potentially harmful to things like free speech and the free flow of information, they’re also creating a great deal of confusion for this season’s political candidates.


Democratic presidential candidate Al Gore has been reassuring voters on the campaign trail, “No matter how our technology grows and changes, your fundamental right to privacy is something that must never change.”  A fellow aspirant for high office close to the president agrees. In a June speech, Hillary Rodham Clinton told broadcast executives that citizens “shouldn’t give up [their] privacy when they… buy a book on the Internet.” 


In practice, the Democratic Party machine seems to have a better handle on the online-privacy issue than its candidates do.  The Democratic National Committee recently announced that, in exchange for answering twenty personal questions, interested individuals could receive free Internet access.  When questioned about the privacy implications of such a deal, DNC Chairman Joe Andrew pointed out, “Privacy concerns are not about volunteering information.” 


Quite right.  But is that arrangement much different from what some politicians hope to stop commercial websites from doing?


Not really.  When commercial websites gather consumer information, they either ask the visitor to fill out a form or they send a tiny file known as a “cookie” to the visitor’s hard drive.  The cookie keeps track of what sites he visits and what advertisement banners catch his attention.  This information can be kept by the business for in-house use, sold for use in a larger marketing list, or cross-referenced with other consumer information. 


This consumer information reduces the chances of apartment-dwellers getting lawn-care solicitations, dog owners receiving cat food coupons, or Ford executives getting campaign information about Ralph Nader.  It’s win-win.  Companies don’t waste their resources sending ads to uninterested consumers and consumers are more likely to be interested in the ads they see. 


Not convinced? 


Neither is John McCain, former candidate for the GOP presidential nomination and current chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee.  He recently criticized the current default “opt-out” privacy approach of most sites.  In the opt-out arrangement, consumers who do not want their viewing habits observed, stored, or sold must explicitly ask to be excluded from these records.     He  then  described one site’s particularly lengthy opting-out process, adding, “That’s not exactly permission for privacy as some of us understand it.” 


McCain was apparently unaware that his campaign website’s privacy policy didn’t even offer a clear link to opting-out, let alone provide a quick and easy method to do so.  But it is true that some consumers may be uncomfortable sharing their information or loath to wade through detailed privacy policies.  It is also true that these concerns are being addressed by new technologies and software tools better than costly regulations could.


Consumers already control their personal information by selectively visiting websites based on the privacy policies offered.  In addition to sticking to sites they trust, Internet users can choose not to fill out registration forms, and set their browsers to get user permission before accepting any cookies (learn how at www.cookiecentral.com).  They can also take advantage of technologies available to help avoid lengthy opt-out processes.  One can browse anonymously, browse under an authenticated digital pseudonym (www.zeroknowledge.com), or be shown a “just-in-time” summary of any site’s privacy policy (www.enonymous.com).


Republican presidential candidate George W. Bush recently commented that “people should not be able to use your information or mine without permission.”  Bush declined to say what legislation incorporating that approach might look like.  But it’s clear he’s leaning towards an “opt-in” approach wherein sites would have to get explicit permission before collecting any information.  These types of regulations would likely prove fatal to many small businesses on the Web and would guarantee to restrict choices to consumers. 


The task of striking a balance between the free-flow of personal information and the right to be left alone is  best left to be worked out by the parties involved—consumers with their computers, and operators of sites which would like to attract them. Politicians genuinely interested in privacy should just butt out.


Jessica Melugin ([email protected]) is a policy analyst at CEI.