The Evolving Technologies Of Internet Privacy

Policy Backgrounders | Privacy

No. 156
Friday, April 27, 2001
by Gregory F. Rehmke

Conclusion: Searching For Balance

No one knows or can know the ideal degree of privacy people desire, or how to achieve it, or how that degree of privacy preference may change over time. So what we want is a process for discovering such preferences and enforcing rights and obligations where they exist.

"There has long been a difference between how information is treated in the provision of services and in the sale of products."

These standards don't have to be invented or mandated by new legislation. Accepted privacy standards already exist in the business world for the work of doctors, accountants, lawyers and other professionals. Privacy advocates claim these same strong standards should be forced onto the Internet. But there has long been a difference between how information is treated in connection with the provision of services and in connection with the sale of products. Doctors generally examine us and advise us in private, not in a department store or at a check-out counter. But if few of us bother to keep secret what we purchase in grocery or department stores, why is it so important to keep these transactions secret on the Internet?

Sometimes people may not want others to know where they shop or what they purchase or what they copy to their computers. This is especially true in totalitarian countries, where people justly fear their own government (two of the founders of SafeWeb are from China and Iran). Unfortunately, the design of the Internet, like the design of early telephone systems with party lines, allows Internet lurkers to observe Web browsing and e-mail.

State and federal governments are ready to jump in with legislative mandates to try to protect Web browsing and e-mail privacy. But governments have not even been very good at observing their own privacy rules.

"Technology, not legislation, can allow individuals to strike a balance between privacy and sharing information about themselves."

Technological developments have created the vast network of databases and interactive communication that is raising many of the concerns about privacy. New software will increasingly make it feasible for individuals to set their own flexible limits on how much information about their Web-use activities they share with others. They will be less able to control generally available information about themselves, just as they were in the days before technology made that information available electronically. But technology, not legislation, can make it possible for individuals to strike a balance on how much they want to participate in information sharing in this Information Age.

Gregory F. Rehmke is a program director at the Foundation for Economic Education.

NOTE: Nothing written here should be construed as necessarily reflecting the views of the National Center for Policy Analysis or as an attempt to aid or hinder the passage of any bill before Congress

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