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Americans as second class citizens

by Scott Bradner

If the press reports are to be believed, and they are all too believable, the Clinton administration is about to codify their opinion that U.S. citizens are second class citizens when it comes to the Internet. They are about to agree with Europe that the privacy of Europeans is more important and deserves better protection than the privacy of Americans.

The European Union passed laws last year to protect the privacy of individuals. Basically the laws require that firms that collect information about you tell you that they are doing so and why and give you a chance to opt out. For more sensitive data the individual would have to grant specific permission before that data could be shared. The Europeans threatened to ban US business from doing business in Europe, including over the Internet, unless they agreed to the rules. The Clinton administration first tried to get the Europeans to back down, they would not, then proposed a plan by which U.S. business could claim that they would meet the rules and be allowed to play. Part of the administration's plan is that adherence to the European rules would be required only when these firms were doing business with European citizens, and not be mandatory when the same firm dealt with a U.S. citizen.

This is not the first time that this administration has come down on the side of the privacy abusers rather than on the side of those whose privacy is being abused. To this administration, details of one's personal life, including religious or political views, sexual practices, maybe even medical history are fair game for exploitation by anyone with the money. They claim that voluntary programs will protect us from the abuses of the database industry. They must be on another planet, if not another universe. They argue against legal penalties. There are no other risks to the data abusers other than the remote possibility that some abused individual will have the gumption to sue for the few dollars that the courts might award them for "actual damages." The Clinton administration pretends to think that the billion dollar business of knowing you better than you know yourself will protect your rights. I'd say what I really think about this but my editor would undoubtedly cut the adjectives.

It’s a mixed blessing that Congress has more than 50 bills introduced to protect the privacy of Internet users. Although it is good to see that someone in Washington understands reality behind the grave concern for individual rights that big business repeatedly demonstrates, most of congress lives in a clue-free zone when it comes to technical realities. I fully expect some congresscritter to introduce legislation to postpone the Y2K deadline. But I do hope that something will come out of Congress's that works better than the administration's plan to prey to the tooth fairy.

disclaimer: Some people say that Harvard has too many clues for the good of others but this rant is my own.