Feb 272015

The fox is proposing to the chickens that it protect them from the raccoons.

The draft Consumer Privacy Bill of Rights Act of 2015 aims to “establish baseline protections for individual privacy in the commercial arena” and to foster those through “enforceable codes of conduct.” These are worthy goals, and achieving them sounds like something the U.S. Federal Trade Commission should be working on.

A “consumer privacy bill of rights” is clearly intended to apply specifically to people who are consuming. The right to personal privacy needs protection regardless of whether people participate in the economy by producing or by consuming, and also if they do not participate at all.

For the White House to focus on this bill now, nearly two years after NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden revealed to the world the truth about our and other nation’s spy agencies, while those agencies continue to operate with complete disregard–in some cases, outright disdain–for personal privacy, slurping up every bit of data they can access by hook or by crook, is to distract the nation from what I see as the most serious problem we face today.

The most significant threats to people’s privacy come from governments’ law enforcement and spy agencies, not from private businesses. Private businesses’ actions are most threatening to our privacy when they collaborate with law enforcement and spy agencies. Private businesses cannot put people in jail based on their words or associations, but governments can and do. Private businesses can neither compel people to hand over information about a third parties nor prohibit them from speaking to others about that order, but governments can and do both.

People can choose not to do business with Wal-Mart or Amazon. We can choose not to tell Facebook anything about ourselves. We can choose not to use Skype, Office 365, Dropbox, or Gmail. But we cannot choose to avoid the actions of FBI, TSA, CIA, or NSA.

If the people of Microsoft dislike the fact that I advocate for the use of open standards and free software, they cannot take action to prevent me from doing so. If the United States government doesn’t like what I have to say or with whom I associate, they can collect and analyze all of my digital communications in search of something to use against me. They can put me on secret watch lists. They can prevent me from exercising my right to travel by air from one state to another. They can label me a terrorist and put me on the president’s drone-assassination list.

The “Internet Privacy Bill of Rights” proposed by the Obama administration would be far more protective of our right to privacy if every use of the word “consumers” was replaced with “people” and if every use of the word “companies” was followed by the words “and governments.”