TOC Leonidas or Themistocles? Your Turn

March 25, 2008

New York State Assemblyman Richard L. Brodsky is one courageous man. His stance against the advancing columns of Google, Microsoft and Yahoo reminds me of the unknown citizen standing alone in front of Chinese tanks near Tiananmen Square (1) or, going back further in history, of Leonidas (2), the Spartan general facing the invading Persian forces.

Come next election, no doubt his opponents will received unlimited funding from an industry which considers it its divine right to freely collect billions of private personal data items and rent them out in exchange for billions of dollars in revenues from advertising companies. I wish him well.

In her report on Richard Brodsky's new bill to protect our basic rights (*), Louise Story details how data aggregators defend their aggression. This month's fillips (3/4, 3/11, 3/18) have already examined some of these blandishments. As Sauron knew, to inspire utter defeatism is to win the war.

  • No harm has been done to you, why arm yourselves? This is a position whose adoption would ruin the entire insurance industry.
  • How else could we earn a living? Honest labor and fair trade come to mind. Let us rank companies by their privacy footprint.
  • Why cry over spilt milk? Wrong metaphor. Like water, profile data is only useful as long as it flows. Stop collecting, privacy will reappear.
  • Can law ever catch up with technology? Yes, it only needs to focus on fundamental imbalances rather than on technology itself.
According to Louise Story, "[to accommodate New York State citizens], the [aggregators] would probably have to adjust their rules everywhere, effectively turning the New York legislation into national law". Isn't it paradoxal? As its first order of business, a personal data aggregator collects one's IP and turns it into a geographic location (3). To spot and fence off those indomitable Gauls (4), I mean New Yorkers, should be a cinch.

There lies an important lesson mixing law and science. IP geolocation is a form of pattern recognition, a science which tells us errors will be made (5), however small in numbers. For instance some residents of Williamstown (MA) may be taken and protected as New York residents. Worse, some inhabitants of nearby Berlin (NY) will be thought to live in Massachusetts and their privacy violated with wanton abandon. Were one of them to sue, the legal doctrine of punitive damages (6) would expose the aggregator to the risk of significant penalties.

So is Louise Story right about Richard Brodsky's national impact? Only if punitive damages remain punitive. In his analysis of trends at the US Supreme Court (**), Jeffrey Rosen casts serious doubts about that hope. Geolocation errors would only concern the small minority of New York residents who live near state boundaries. If punitive damages cannot be "grossly excessive", Google will find it worthwhile to crush a few indomitable New Yorkers much as the Persians disposed of Leonidas and his 300 men.

Tim Arango recently told us (***) that cable companies too want to enter the targeted advertisement market. They of course know precisely the address of the IP's they give their customers. It would be but to their advantage, were Richard Brodsky to indirectly threaten Google and its gang.

Forget Leonidas. Persians were routed not by courage alone, but with foresight, as the Athenians followed Themistocles and built a modern navy (7). Why not likewise check ePrio's claims that its technology can deliver targeted ads without violating user privacy?

Philippe Coueignoux

  • (*) .............. A Push to Limit the Tracking of Web Surfers' Clicks, by Louise Story (New-York Times) - March 20, 2008
  • (**) ........... Supreme Court Inc., by Jeffrey Rosen (New-York Times Magazine) - March 16, 2008
  • (***) ......... Cable Firms Join Forces To Attract Focused Ads, by Tim Arango (New-York Times) - March 10, 2008
  • (1) see the Unknown Rebel in the Wikipedia
  • (2) see Leonidas in the Wikipedia
  • (3) for example see Geobytes . For a more complete list, search for "IP locator"
  • (4) in Asterix's adventures, a Gaulish village keeps Caesar's Roman legions at bay
  • (5) see the lesson on credit fraud from our lectures on Liabilities and Vulnerabilities in the Information Age
  • (6) see punitive damages in the Wikipedia
  • (7) see Themistocles in the Wikipedia
March 2008
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