TOC Is Man but an animal? Your Turn

April 8, 2009

Little is needed to turn a well deserved reputation into a self flattering portrait.

Much for instance has been made by English writers of Galileo's 1633 trial and condemnation by the Catholic Church for promoting the heliocentric theory as if it were a proven fact (1). Strangely enough, English writers have made very little of the refusal by the English government to reconcile its own calendar with the seasons by adopting Clavius' 1582 proposal (2). According to these two precedents, be ready to wait two centuries or thereabout before governments turn our eprivacy rights from revolutionary plot to accepted fact.

Meanwhile I cannot help but tweak the nose of the two countries I know best, i.e. France and the United States.

If you think the United States is the true champion of free markets, the never ending debate about ticket scalping should give you pause. We looked into this in the context of sports events. But the same phenomenon arises when singers go on tour. "Some performers scalp their own tickets" Gary Bongiovanni declared to Ben Sisario, adding "few will admit to it publicly for fear of appearing to fleece their fans" (*). Is untrammelled capitalism becoming a shameful practice in America?

On the other hand you may harbor the illusion French would never engage in the type of rough justice they associate with the Wild West. Shoot before, ask questions later. Under discussion in the French Assembly, the HADOPI bill (3) proposes to first take away their Internet access from users whose account is reported to engage in digital piracy and then examine whether the measure was justified or not. It has caught the eye of American copyright defenders, reports Michael Cieply (**), but may prove too rough a remedy even for staunch Texans to stomach.

Whether adopted or not, HADOPI illustrates how relevant our motto, "Privacy, Identity, Responsibility", proves to be.

Pirates ought to face up to their responsibilies. Personally I have little sympathy for them although I wish the term be used without discriminating against individual users. Aren't they pirates too, the companies which routinely send legal spam without the receiver's uncoerced consent or which compile or use personal information for their own benefit? With this caveat, I find sending two warnings to the pirate a fair process in principle.

Yet how can one be so sure of the identity of an Internet pirate when all one monitors is an IP address? Under HADOPI, at the very least, all honest users will have to secure their Internet access accounts lest they risk being cut off. And what good in practice will warnings be for such honest users unless they know for sure who has broken into their account? Providers cannot accept their denials without emasculating HADOPI.

In other words, by elevating the IP address to the equivalent of an identity, HADOPI creates a powerful incentive for stealing this new identity and a new sanction for the victim of the corresponding identity theft, losing one's Internet access. If this proves successful, will victims of car theft lose their driver's license when the thief causes an accident? Beware! The clumsier the Sheriff of Sherwood, the more popular Robin Hood.

Last week I suggested that our Information Age Society is bent on attacking its own members as, in autoimmune diseases, the body attacks its own cells. HADOPI is but the latest example of this worrisome trend. Air travel is rife with such cases. Joan Raymond has thus recorded the ordeal of Bobby Reynolds whose Tokyo flight to San Francisco was sent back to Tokyo because a fellow passenger bore "the same name as a guy on [the US] no-fly list" (***). Incompetent handling of Identity issues too easily escapes from Responsibility.

Joe Sharkey's column (****) about the forthcoming deployment of whole-body scanners at airports, whose operators see through passengers' clothing, suggests another metaphor. Society appears much too comfortable handling its members as it would animals, naked, tagged and, whenever necessary, caged. To better enforce Responsibility and track Identity, nothing remains of Privacy.

Whether unauthorized download of copyrighted material or sly upload of confidential information, it's all about money. When travel is concerned, it's to fight terrorism. Yet we should not hasten to assign the breakdown of society to these two factors. Causes go deeper than greed and the spreading of fear.

As John Schwartz points out (*****), it is fast becoming impossible to prevent jurors from receiving and sending information in a way "directly violating the judge's instructions and centuries of legal rules". With mobile devices and the Internet, anything can happen "on a lunch or bathroom break" unless, that is, the subject is treated as an animal. Rebecca Elon compares professional testing centers to jails. Courthouses are next.

Frequent readers know I am wont to push ePrio's technology as a solution for many of the problems I probe. Making sure individuals are truly left to their own native devices during tests and jury trials is, I confess, beyond its reach. Should we then resign ourselves to be no more than animals?

Surely from a biological perspective we are but animals. Doesn't though Democracy pledge to raise the status of all its members above such a low starting point? If a democratic institution, be it testing one's own skills or calling on one's own unbiased judgment, cannot survive without breaking its pledge, perhaps we should ask whether this institution, at least in its present form, has not outlived its purpose.

Considering Privacy to be a luxury may be the current practice. A little more of this self flattering, I warn, and Democracy becomes Dictatorship.

Philippe Coueignoux

  • (*) ......... Online Resales Pushing Tickets Far From Reach, by Ben Sisario (New York Times) - April 1st, 2009
  • (**) ....... Digital Piracy Spreads, and Defies a Fix, by Michael Cieply (New York Times) - April 7, 2009
  • (***) ..... No Glamour, but Lots of Geography, by Joan Raymond (New York Times) - March 24, 2009
  • (****) ... Whole-Body Scans Pass First Airport Tests, by Joe Sharkey (New York Times) - April 7, 2009
  • (*****) . As Jurors Turn to Google and Twitter, Mistrials Are Popping Up, by John Schwartz (New York Times) - April 7, 2009
  • (1) see Galileo in the Wikipedia.
  • (2) see Clavius and the adoption of the Gregorian Calendar in the Wikipedia.
  • (3) see le projet de loi HADOPI in the French Wikipedia.
April 2009
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