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Assessing the McCain-Kerry Privacy Act

In early April, Senators John Kerry and John McCain introduced a bill in Congress that would allegedly protect the privacy of Internet users from the unwanted advances of online marketers and retailers. Called the Commercial Privacy Bill of Rights Act of 2011, this bill is targeted at online operators who collect personal information from their customers only to sell it later to other online sellers who can then bombard their unsuspecting victims with specially designed marketing and advertising campaigns or messages.

If this bill becomes law, Internet business operations would no longer be able to sell your name, email address, social security number, physical address or credit card information to other Internet marketers without your consent. Sensitive financial, medical and religious information could also not be shared without your express permission. It is hard to believe that it was ever legal for them to do this kind of thing in the first place, but it has been up to now, which is why your email inbox fills up so quickly with unwanted and unwelcome sales pitches. Ostensibly, the McCain-Kerry Privacy Act would end this flood of digital junk mail, while keeping your vital information out of the hands of potentially unscrupulous people.

Predictably, groups representing the Internet marketing industry are whining and crying about the unfairness of this legislation. They are relying on their favorite scare tactic, claiming that if the sneaky practices of online advertisers are limited in any way, nothing will be free anymore and we will have to start paying for our email and for the right to use search engines. Naturally, the objections of these groups are absurd, since no one is talking about banning online marketing and advertising completely, or in any meaningful way. If Internet businesses can’t survive without violating peoples’ privacy by trafficking in what is essentially stolen personal information, then they clearly don’t deserve to survive anyway.

Beware the Trojan Horse

Before we get all warm and fuzzy and copasetic about this legislation, however, we must remember that this is the federal government we are talking about here, and when the sponsors of a bill are a couple of big-time insiders like Mr. Kerry and Mr. McCain, there are plenty of reasons to be suspicious. And indeed, groups like Consumer Watch, Privacy Times and Privacy Watch Clearinghouse that have looked closely at this legislation have uncovered a couple of significant rips in its armor. First, instead of allowing the Federal Trade Commission or some new independent agency to monitor the implementation of and compliance with this law once it goes into effect, for some unfathomable reason (or is it really unfathomable?) much of the authority to oversee this new law is going to be handed over to the Commerce Department. This is the same government agency that’s entire reason for being is to promote the interests of business and of big business in particular. To compare this to putting the fox in charge of the hen house is to do an injustice to the fox. This move perhaps explains why Internet corporate bigwigs like Microsoft, Intel and eBay have come out in support of this legislation.

The second significant tear in the armor is that this legislation has important exceptions to its rules. In this case, it is Facebook and other social networking sites that will not be held to the same standards as other online marketing interests. They will still be allowed to collect some information for sharing without permission, because they supposedly could not function without having this ability.

But beyond these objections, there is another problem with this bill that is even more fundamental, and that is those magic three words at the end of its protection clause – without your permission. If Senators Kerry and McCain really wanted to protect the interests of the public, they could have simply barred the practice of sharing information outright. After all, why should it be up to you or me to have to ask the companies that we deal with online to please not sell our personal information to other retailers and marketers? And of course, we all know how they will go about seeking our permission to continue doing so – instead of asking us forthrightly and plainly if it is okay, they will force us to check a box or click a link somewhere to opt out. And they will provide us with written instructions on how to do so that are so convoluted and confusing that we will end up checking “yes” when we want to say “no”, or clicking on “cancel” when we really meant “agree”. Even if the makers of this bill insisted on putting the onus on us, they could have done it the easy and simple way, by providing us with a one-off option similar to the “Do Not Call” list that we can subscribe to in order to escape the clutches of telemarketers.

Protecting Yourself

At first glance, a law to protect our personal information from Internet predators (let’s call them what they are) seems like a terrific idea. But when you consider the incestuous relationship that exists between government and big business, the question always has to be asked – who will protect us from our protectors?

Instead of relying on government to protect us from them, we need to wake up and realize the government is actually a part of them, and can’t be relied on to protect the interests of the people in any situation. The best way to avoid having your personal information shared online is to only do business with those Internet merchants that allow you to pay by check or money order, and do not try to force you to pay with a credit or debit card. You will of course still have to give your name and physical address, but even this latter invasion of your privacy can be avoided if you rent a post office box for receiving mail. The bottom line is that you have an inalienable right to take whatever steps you need to take to protect your privacy, and you should take things into your own hands and not rely on any other person or institution to do it for you.

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