April 1st, 2008
The US Supreme Court has elected Barack Obama today as the 44th President of the United States. Taking all political observers by surprise with its 8 to 1 decision written by Justice Thomas, Justice Ginsburg dissenting, the Court cited its own precedent, Bush v. Gore (1), to affirm its power to act as the ultimate guardian of the people's best interest. In today's case, it moved swiftly to stop what Justice Scalia described as "another deeply flawed electoral process which had been inflicting a most cruel and unusual punishment on the American people". Asked by reporters how the Court decided in favor of Obama, Chief Justice Roberts confided that the most reliable count of people's ballots was available for free from Google (2).
So much for field reporting. Politics should focus on policies, not personalities. Still, however well informed, candidates for the US Presidency must find it hard to address fast evolving situations, in Irak or on Wall Street, fully nine months before coming into office. Bets are not policies. Could the candidates be prevailed instead to detail their positions on a topic less volatile but every bit as important, i.e. threats to personal privacy?
The candidates cannot say they are unaware of the issue. Helene Cooper reported their passport files have recently been read by unauthorized State Department employees (*). Even more galling, they were told of the breach only after a reporter got hold of the story. Presidential candidates entertain few expectations of course as far as their privacy goes. Most of us though are as much a target for the curiosity of our close neighbors and colleagues and the malfeasance of confidence artists. Yet we cannot hope the Washington Post will lend us its investigative power, can we?
Risk to the person, privacy is also an economic lever. Ian Urbina recently described the difficulties Philadelphia faces in providing discounted Internet wireless access to the poor (**). Would Earthlink have withdrawn its support if it had been able to tap the revenues of targeted advertising as Google knows how to do? Wouldn't the candidates want to address this capital problem of Pennsylvania, the next primary battleground?
From an economic perspective, personal data today is like oil in the XIXth century. New refining techniques suddenly promise to generate great wealth from its extraction. I ask who should own the mining rights. The State, as in France for all mineral wealth, or the rightful owners of the property to be tapped, as in the US for oil and gas, or the squatters who found a way to collect the data for free unbeknownst of its owners?
State inaction delivers the wealth into the hands of squatters like Google and its gang. But is what is good for Google good for America? Economics tells us stolen property is never as well managed as lawful property even when the law condones the theft. This is what gave us run away pollution. Is the American economy so strong that it can afford a new permanent productivity drain? Philadelphia could sure use some of this wasted money.
Downside of personal data refining, privacy risks are not negligible. A junk mail just offered me insurance coverage for "up to $5,000 in attorney's fees and court costs" in case of ID theft. Google and its gang swear there is no such risk in profile aggregation, as if one's reputation could not be damaged as well as one's credit. Can profiles be truly anonymous? Are profile banks impervious to imaginative hackers, like those who cracked a supermarket chain network (***)? Do employees never make stupid mistakes like this week's exposure of medical data (****)? Can't a leak or a peek cost one a job, as the New York Times editorial suggests ? Is it just that individuals bear the risks while profile aggregators get the profits?
It is time the candidates publicly pledge their allegiance to the Bill of Rights and promise to restore the integrity of markets.
As Joshua Chaffin reminds us (*****), there is still a lot to be discovered to improve the advertising experience online. Profits are much easier to extract by robbing content providers of their data rights and individuals are not the only victims. Songwriters like Billy Bragg complain of abusive agreements by Web entrepreneurs (******). Bob Tedeschi reports how online content publishers are threatened by a new Google initiative as it relentlessly seek to increase its share of the advertising pie (*******). Far from being a Luddite pursuit, ePrivacy is all about money.
Will the candidates pay attention to the eprivacy issue before Google is used to settle elections?
- (*) .............. Passport Files Of 3 Hopefuls Are Pried Into, by Helene Cooper (New-York Times) - March 22, 2008
- (**) ........... Hopes for Wireless Cities Fade As Internet Providers Pull Out, by Ian Urbina (New-York Times) - March 22, 2008
- (***) ......... Credit Card Breach Raises Broad Concerns, (AP) (New-York Times) - March 23, 2008
- (****) ....... Safeguarding Private Medical Data, editorial column (New-York Times) - March 26, 2008
- (*****) ..... Advertisers try the soft sell as television drifts online, by Joshua Chaffin (Financial Times) - March 28, 2008
- (******) .. The Royalty Scam, by Billy Bragg (New-York Times) - March 22, 2008
- (*******). A New Tool From Google Alarms Sites, by Bob Tedeschi (New-York Times) - March 24, 2008
- (1) see Bush v. Gore US Supreme Court, December 12, 2000
- (2) On March 28, 2008, at the time the Court reached its decision,
results on Google Search were Obama Barack: 8,500,000, Clinton Hillary: 5,360,000 and Mccain John: 3,770,000.
Google Trends confirmed obama as the brand leader as shown by its comparative popularity test obama, clinton, mccain.