Friday, February 12, 2010

Introspection on Competing Assumptions

Disclaimer*: the purpose of this piece is to clarify my thoughts on the issue of the possible conflict between the underlying assumptions of libertarian ideals and those of privacy advocacy. As such, it may - and probably will - end up being an equivocating and undeveloped ramble.

Libertarianism, while favoring limited government oversight, is not synonymous with anarchism. Humans can certainly exhibit behavior that should be suppressed by societal controls. However, these controls need not always be legal; social norms and the development of the highest level of conscience, not partaking in a transgression because one feels that it is morally/ethically wrong, can serve as well, if not better, than law.

I often apply this theorem to the debate over how to stop the sharing of copyrighted material --movies, music, etc. In my opinion, this is stealing, but I disagree with the current methods of enforcement. I suggest that the best way to encourage people not to steal music is to get them to internalize that this is wrong - the same reason that we do not steal from brick-and-mortar stores.

When I present this idea (usually in relation to other libertarian ideals) to someone of an opposing view, a person of a more authoritarian stance, our debate usually funnels philosophically to our underlying assumptions: optimism that humans are inherently good and will make the right decision given enough time (mine) vs. humans are avaricious creatures that require a high degree of oversight (authoritarian view). Obviously, this is an oversimplification of a complex, multifaceted argument into a one-dimensional spectrum, but I think that the dichotomy here is fairly accurate.

In stark contrast, while I generally preach my less-government ethos, I feel that privacy laws are an important way that government protects us from our own worst instincts. Bodies of law such as HIPAA (protection of medical data) and FERPA (protection of academic records) serve an important purpose. I feel that new, similar protections should be enacted and enforced to stop the sale and aggregation of personal data, without a customer's explicit consent, for advertisement purposes. (I will expound on this sometime if anyone is interested or if the mood strikes, whichever comes first.) The underlying assumption here is that business and government will be irresponsible with their use of personal information, and that they need to be regulated.

So, then, do we have two underlying assumptions in seeming conflict: optimism of the strength of the human conscience vs. pessimism of our ability to do the right thing without oversight. How can one be both a libertarian and a privacy advocate? Is this a false dichotomy or just the inherent conflict in non-partisan thinking -- i.e. being a moderate?

*I may have been influenced to write a moderately self-deprecating intro to this after reading Borges' introduction(s) to his A Universal History of Iniquity.


Mad Irish said...

It is my understanding that libertarianism espouses government non-intervention. However, as I understand it, libertarianism is mainly concerned with government interference in private life, as opposed to governmental regulation. In fact, it seems that the biggest source of conflict in libertarianism is the idea of property. The strongest proponents of privacy seem to hinge on this same concept - property. That is, one's personal data is one's property. Although we tolerate a transfer of certain details or personal/private information to companies in order to do business we expect a certain amount of "fair use" governance to apply. One might even argue that privacy is the ultimate expression of personal freedom. That is the freedom from governmental or corporate surveillance. Very few people actually care about privacy in it's purest form though. They do, however, get upset when personal information they've shared with a company in order to transact with them is then sold to a third party without the advice or consent of the original source of the data. In much the same way that musicians get pissed off when they sell music to one party who then gives it away to other parties without any consent (or profit) shared with the original source of the music. What is onerous about this invasion of privacy (aside from the ensuing spam and telemarketing) is that an institution might insist on certain information as part of a business transaction (such as my address in order to ship me a book) and then use that information to turn a profit without my knowledge (such as sharing my mailing address with marketers).

There is an argument to be made that the current evolution of social media is guided by just such a desire - to harvest personal details of participants in order to make money off of that information without the advice or consent of said participants. I think the same libertarians who don't want the government telling them what they can smoke or do on their own property would be equally upset by a corporation harvesting their personal data in order to build a dossier on them in order to sell that information to marketers. Even more offensive is the organization that builds such dossiers and keeps them on an unsecured machine that is compromised by hackers who then take control of that information in order to perpetrate fraud. In our modern society data is a valuable commodity and until it is guarded by legal precedent as property it will have to be protected by governmental regulation.

I think your dichotomous understanding of conscience versus oversight fails when corporations are involved. Collective entities motivated by profit and laws of economics fail to operate by principles of basic human dignity for many reasons. Probably the most obvious is separation of responsibility, group think, and insulation from cause and effect. Someone filling out a form on the 8th floor accounting office may find it very difficult to objectively assess the moral impact or objectionability of the ensuing actions that such a form triggers. With money mixed up in the decision (i.e. I have to keep my job so I can feed my family) there is a very large disincentive to do the digging required for most employees to understand the outcome of their small contribution to a corporate behemoth. Thus, without a law saying they can't do it, it's very difficult for a CEO to look at a pile of 1's and 0's in a database and then turn down an offer of cash for access that data. Even more difficult is an informed and well considered decision about resource allocation for information security and defence of those assets. Because the people tasked with these decisions are making them without a full and complete understanding of value and consequence we need legal and governmental guidelines to help safeguard individual interests, regardless of how well intentioned the individual actors may be.

Mad Irish said...

+1 for Google tracking this post and cross joining it with all my e-mail, my iGoogle feeds, and my search terms!

Chris Mustazza said...

Thanks! I think that everything you've said is correct. There is another, more complex dimension to the conversation of privacy regulation that I will save for another post: the right of one citizen to blog about/post pictures of/shame online another-- i.e. privacy vs. free speech.

I like your conception of privacy as ownership of information, but it gets especially interesting when there is a conflict over WHO owns the information. Consider if I post a picture of myself smiling in the foreground and you doing a kegstand in the background. You feel that you own your own image, however I also own mine (as well as the experience of being at the same party, regardless of whether I was in the picture). So, the question becomes, should you have legal recourse to make me take the picture down? What about apocryphal text about you? Should the law protect privacy in that right?

I would argue that it should not because it would curtail a basic right: free speech. A privacy advocate might argue that I am damaging something that is not mine: your reputation.

Anyway, just something to think about. Thanks, as always, for the thoughtful comments.

Mad Irish said...

Hmm, while I do think a person should own their personal details, it's a tough consideration. The sum of my personal information (or a part thereof) is valuable, but the individual pieces may not be. I think this also throws a monkey wrench into the analysis. There's also the dilemma around "reasonable expectation of privacy." Personal ownership of imagery basically falls down around this legal theory. It does apply to some other personal data (such as communiques). It's a very thorny issue and I think the gray areas beg for regulation. Although my physical address is freely available online, if you dig enough, is it permissible for someone to post that information ( alongside veiled threats? Is that free speech or an invasion of my privacy? Luckily there is some legal precedent and statutory guidelines around these situations.