TOC On the web, every day is April 1 Your Turn

April 6, 2010

Focused on the defense of eprivacy, our natural right to our personal information, my weekly blog writes itself times and again. Indeed, to do justice to the subject, my enquiry roams far and wide, even asking what is truth (1) and, if I ever needed a fillip, the past few days have provided it.

Last week of course Good Friday gave us a fresh opportunity to hear Pontius Pilate's disillusioned comment on human justice. But also this year April 1 fell last Wednesday, the perfect illustration of the slippery nature of all knowledge.

Wikipedia, this poster child of our Age of Information, brilliantly outdid itself in the instance. Its April 1 "featured article" was on "Wife-selling", a practical English custom to get rid of burdensome companions (2). If this is a joke, it is a very good one as the article is well researched and documented. If the information is genuine, its credibility is totally undermined by its being featured on April Fools'. So what's your pick?

"Along with the freest access to knowledge the world has ever seen comes a staggering amount of untruth", writes Brian Stelter (*). The ironical consequence is that we are no more advanced than in the Middle-Ages, when information about the natural world was as scant as it was fantastical. Today the web is still no more than the mirror of one's prejudices.

Being French, I am inclined to think it likely the English put their wives on the market. Having a taste for History, I appreciate the "fact" that this means of divorce is reported to have appeared during the XVIIth century and been limited to the lower classes. No wonder Henry VIII was forced to behead his beloved Boleyn. He lacked this more rational release. Ready to accept it as a fact, I show how easy it was for the New York Times to give first business section status to its reporter's contention that Asian airlines planned to introduce standing-only Airbus flights.

Brian Stelter hints at a possible solution,, which he bills as an "arbiter in the Age of Misinformation" (3). Unfortunately this recommender is not universal and has nothing to say about "wife-selling". Hence "a trend toward the opposite approach, hyper-skepticism".

It has been argued that time promotes truth on the Internet, based on the belief no one can fool the Internet community, i.e. all the people all the time. By now unfortunately this hope has been proven vain. Four years after the fact, universal recommender Google still gives Christopher Elliott's reported rumor its top recommendation, AKA ranking, when one searches for "standing only passenger Airbus" (4).

It does not help the words themselves can be twisted in true Newspeak fashion. For a second, I could not believe it when David Gelles wrote "technology companies [are] calling for an overhaul of digital privacy laws in the US, [to] better safeguard businesses and individuals" (**). When one knows how most of them constantly add to their massive compilation of deeply personal facts about every aspect of our lives, one wonders what safeguards they can possibly have in mind. Of course we always knew the answer, they must be thinking about protecting themselves.

Though, as I read about this in a newspaper dated March 31, I briefly wondered if the publisher had not inadvertently released David Gelles' article one day too early. But rather than a sleek lie, it was a brazen feat of hypocrisy.

The threat targeted by the "Digital Due Process coalition" is the US Government. That Google feels under threat now is quite natural. Thanks to its winning diabolo strategy, Google has crushed all competitors besides national governments. Having to retreat out of China is bad enough. Google can ill afford to retreat out of the US. And so Google is painting its self-defense with the colors of protecting our privacy.

That our privacy is under threat from governments, be they American, Chinese or French for that matter, is real enough as highlighted in these pages, from their very beginning. But Google's self-serving fatally undermines any success by the coalition, which, Miguel Helft fairly reminds us, "would not affect the use of personal information for commercial purposes, like marketing, a mounting source of concern among users" (***).

When it depends on feudal protectors feuding amongst themselves, expect our welfare to become a casualty. Take Elissa Ely's point that generic drugs are not always identical to the medications for which they substitute (****). Such an inconvenient truth!

The more pharmaceutical companies fund their research through so-called blockbusters, the more insurance companies impose cheap generics in the stead of their high margin predecessors, the more destitute the patients with an adverse reaction to the generic "equivalent" product. It stands to reason physicians ought to be able to dictate the correct remedy for each patient. Unfortunately the trust they once commanded as recommenders has crumbled under the double accusation of being too quick either to pacify demanding patients or to take favors from sales representatives.

I did not bring this example idly. Health related data is among the most sensitive of our personal information. Yet despite some gallant efforts our pronaocracies have failed so far to consistently and effectively address its evident need for privacy.

Meanwhile how could we refuse the very real benefits of the Internet? Claire Cain Miller documents how "social networks [act as] a lifeline for the chronically ill" (*****). Noam Cohen relays that "the Google search engine started automatically giving a suggestion of where to call after receiving a search seemingly focused on suicide" (******).

Either we realize sharing and privacy are not incompatible, or we will be left at the mercy of "our Big Brother who art in the cloud". It's no joke.

Philippe Coueignoux

  • (*) ............ Debunkers Of Fiction Sift the Net, by Brian Stelter (New York Times) - April 5 , 2010
  • (**) .......... Google leads call to change privacy law in US, by David Gelles (Financial Times) - March 31, 2010
  • (***) ....... A Wide Call To Improve Web Privacy, by Miguel Helft (New York Times) - March 31, 2010
  • (****) ..... The high price of pain, by Elissa Ely (Boston Globe) - March 28, 2010
  • (*****) ... Social Networks a Lifeline For the Chronically Ill, by Claire Cain Miller (New York Times) - March 25, 2010
  • (******) . 'Suicide' Query Prompts Google To Offer Hotline, by Noam Cohen (New York Times) - April 5 , 2010
  • (1) for more details, look up "truth and truth finding" in the major themes index of these fillips
  • (2) see Wife selling in the Wikipedia
  • (3) see the FAQ page of Snopes
  • (4) as given by Google on April 5, 2010 in answer to this query
April 2010
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