Privacy and piracy: What are we telling the kids?

The lesson is that ownership of information is a corporate right, and that people are only licensors.

"Privacy is dead"

Privacy is not dead, even if some kids are starting to believe it's so. Last year I read yet another recent graduate blithering, in one of the local alt-weeklies, about how privacy is an outmoded notion that old people cling to. Even financial data came up in the conversation, and I thought, "Oh, you poor thing -- I'll be here with a blanket and some hot cocoa when you wake up, your violated financial data barely identifiable as your own, while Mom peruses the details of the viral gift your ex gave you splayed across your hacked MySpace page."

Some things are better kept private -- passwords, for example. And it's a fine line between waving access to one's data in the wind and losing control of it, yet the distinction is often lost on the less astute kids. Getting another MySpace account is easy, but another Social Security number is not. More cynical kids might have a look at the state of internet monitoring, marketing from personal financial data and use of medical data for dubious research, then adopt the idea that personal privacy is a granted by public and private service providers, not inherent right.

How is it that one arrives at such a naive or deeply cynical position, and how could such a person hack it in the modern workplace? Even a pancake-house cashier needs to understand the consequences of logging in and out of their Squirrel system; do you really want your next generation of employees to operate on the assumption that all data should be treated as public information?

"Justice is purchased"

Mentioned earlier, enforcement of the ailing media industry business model -- where artists are subject to predatory contracts, and consumers to predatory conditions and pricing -- has been propped up by changes to copyright law that withhold material from the public domain far longer than could have been imagined until recently. Worse, enforcement of what would have been civil actions is now conducted with disproportionate assistance by law enforcement, or even by RIAA rent-a-cops impersonating law enforcement officials.

The aftermath of discovery and media raids has left thousands of people amidst lawsuits filed by companies with vast legal and financial resources, with the vast majority of those consumers bullied into revolving-door settlements against the threat of ruinously long court proceedings. If the kids weren't cynical by now, this demonstrates clearly that money and power can buy laws and enforcement, and that due process is meaningless.

If the civil courts can't support a defense of a business model, then the business model needs to die. We don't need more laws, just enforcement of the ones we have -- or had, before the MPAA and RIAA started to monkey with them. Even some of the positive news in this regard is tarnished. For example, the French audio recording industry association intends to force Internet service providers to identify specific illicit file-sharers and their specific actions -- at the expense of user privacy.

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Jon Espenschied

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