Online Privacy: The Great Debate

Can consumer privacy can be protected online without new legislation?

That was the topic of debate Wednesday afternoon at the National Press Club in Washington DC.

On the side of increased legislation were Andrew Keen, the author of a new book called “Digital Vertigo: How Today’s Online Social Revolution is Dividing, Diminishing, and Disorienting Us“, and  Marc Rotenberg, President Of The Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC).

Arguing against that position, were Andrew Thierer, Senior Research Fellow, Mercatus Center, and Berin Szoka, President TechFreedom.

Keen contends that consumers really have no choice other than to use “free” online applications provided by companies that make their money by aggregating consumer data and selling it to advertisers. But, he says, consumers are paying for those so-called free services by relinquishing control of their private information.

“Data is the new oil”, Keen says, “and the consumer has become the product.”  He contends that “We need government protection against the infinite speed of technology, and technology companies, and the way in which they’re turning consumers into products. We need protection against these new data barons that are undermining our privacy, flattening publicness [sic] and privacy, and I think in many ways, undermining what it is to be human”.

Rotenberg agrees. “We are undergoing a fundamental change in how personal information is collected and used not only in the US economy, but in the information economy around the world. This change is so fundamental and so pervasive that… and I think people here would all acknowledge it that… we need to find some new solutions. ”

He also noted that the government’s role in protecting privacy can be traced all the way back to founding father,  Ben Franklin, who was instrumental in creating the U.S. Postal Service. “Franklin’s almost immediate insight about the value of this new service was that it had to afford privacy and confidentiality, otherwise people would not trust it.”

While Thierer agreed that consumer privacy is currently at risk on the Internet, he contends “We should not respond to those risks with top-down or heavy-handed approaches.”

Instead, he suggests;  “You use literacy, you use empowerment–and yes–sometimes use selective and targeted enforcement to address real legitimate harms. But that is the bottom up approach to dealing with technological risk that societies face. It’s the more constructive one, because it allows innovation and progress to happen, without the heavy hand of top-down Internet governance coming in and crushing all that we love about the information age.”

Szoka argued that the US Federal Trade Commission, while not perfect, already has privacy regulations in place that protect consumers from unfair and deceptive business practices.

“I’m not saying the government has no role here, the question is what that role is… to think that role has to be one of legislation is a fundamental mistake.”

To find out more about this topic, check out the following links:

Digital Vertigo: How Today’s Online Social Revolution is Dividing, Diminishing, and Disorienting Us

Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC)



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