NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis


August 15, 2005

In the United States, personal information of more than 50 million consumers has been lost, stolen and even sold to thieves. But why is this happening here, and not in Britain, Germany or France, asks the New York Times.

One reason may be that almost every European country has a comprehensive set of national privacy laws and an office of data protection, whereas the United States has a patchwork of state and federal laws and agencies responsible for data protection. Moreover, these two systems arise from a cultural divide over privacy itself, says the Times.

In the United States:

  • More Americans are willing to give out personal information.
  • Many Americans believe that privacy is an economic commodity, and companies have free rein to collect and sell information.
  • The mid-1990s saw an unusual alliance between privacy advocates and national phone companies that led to restrictions on the commercial use of phone and billing information.
  • Overall, the United States has more laws restricting government collection and use of information than laws restricting corporate collection and use of information.

In Europe:

  • Unlike Americans, Europeans do not willing give out their personal information and most countries restrict retailers' data collection to personal data related to the sale.
  • Most nations believe that privacy is a right that should be regulated by a set of principles that apply to both business and government.
  • In the early 1970s, the German state of Hesse enacted the first set of data privacy laws; the laws have been strengthened and applied continent-wide by the European Union.

One thing that both privacy cultures have in common is that it is becoming harder for either to control what is and isn't kept private, says the Times.

Source: Eric Dash, "Europe Zips Lips: U.S. Sells ZIPs," New York Times, August 7, 2005.

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