TOC The Do Not Copy registry Your Turn

February 3, 2011

This fillip is late. Despite my best efforts, I have been buried under the perfect snow storm. To a bracing New England winter which insists on dumping a foot a week with no thaw in between, add a blizzard of consultations on eprivacy.

I survived one challenge at least and welcome readers to survey my latest eprivacy campaign (1). Spring unfortunately is still faraway in the future.

Not to say that we will enjoy eprivacy any time soon, witness the latest initiative of Representative Darrell Issa. According to Eric Lipton (*), "the new chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform" wants "the names of [all those] who have requested copies of federal government documents in recent years".

If Representative Issa really wanted to improve how timely the US Government is in its handling Freedom of Information Act requests, he would not need to know who wanted what, only what was wanted when. It's a perfect illustration of the need to distinguish a search request from its response. If the latter belongs to the party which provides it, eprivacy demands to delete the name of satisfied requestors from the search log.

Some people just do not like the idea their every move is faithfully recorded by those who swear they are here to serve them when all they seek is to serve themselves. This is exactly why the Federal Trade Commission wants to set up a Do Not Track registry.

The FTC has been so much on my mind lately that I had a dream last night. A messenger from the FBI appeared to me. "Do not be afraid, he said, I am only here to bring you some news." So here I am, relaying this straight from my FBI informer.

Inspired by the example of the FTC, the FBI has found the way to solve the thorny problem of digital music piracy. It plans to set up a Do Not Copy registry. Brilliant. Every music recording company who objects to losing control of its own records, every songwriter who does not want his or her own life to be mercilessly tapped by anonymous leeches may simply enter their name in this registry. Et voilą. No more worry.

Some will say there is little need for such a Do Not Copy registry as it will only duplicate the membership of the Recording Industry Association of America and the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers. True cynics will say. So what? Who thinks pirates play by the rules?

"Some of what Facebook Inc. users post to the social network will soon start showing up in ads aimed at their friends" reports Geoffrey A. Fowler (**). "Users won't get any special notification that their posts have been sponsored and used as ads, and there's no option for users to opt out of the service". Nobody said pirates have no rules. They do. They simply write them themselves.

How to write good rules happens to be a pet topic of mine. Still teaching pirates how to write their own rules, a practice euphemistically called self-regulation, would be bringing coal to Newcastle. But there is a need to explain to the wider public how is it done.

The first commandment is to write copiously, ornately and in lawyerly jargon. Whatever you say must be lost to most readers, even if they dared to read your prose. I hear you, dear reader. You softly whisper it reminds you of my own fillips.

The second commandment makes all the difference. If you have read that far into my fillip, it is because you saw your benefit in the exertion, in the hope of catching an idea, a nuance, per chance a chuckle to repay the effort. Nobody asked you to do so. For pirates though, the rule is simpler. If you actually refuse to read their turgid output, it does not matter. You must acknowledge having done so and approve to play by their rules.

People are not stupid, you will say. If they do not read or do not understand, they will not say they did. Haven't you heard about bundling?

If you want something badly enough, say to buy a train ticket, will you think twice about acknowledging the pirate as self-made sovereign? Poor Lucy Kellaway! The other day, she got robbed by First Great Western on the way to London from Cardiff (***). "When I got back home I did look at [its] terms and conditions. They were at least six pages of them." As for the style, she confesses "I don't think I have ever read a more baffling, boring or repetitive sentence." This from someone who review bad business prose for a living.

Still restricting the validity of the tickets you sell is one thing. Grabbing personal data from those who browse your web site is an entirely different proposal. Not only so-called privacy policies trap consumers in smart small print. They have nothing to do with delivering what the consumer wants.

The latter bundling has no justification but for the fact it is the surest way to get consumers to give away their eprivacy. If tackling "my horse for your kingdom" on the purchase of common work horses is not a deceptive practice to be declared illegal, what is?

Rather than merely offering consumers a way to record their unhappiness about targeted advertising, the FTC should compel all organizations to unbundle any unnecessary transfer of consumer data rights into a separate transaction, what I call a "personal data contract".

It will not eliminate small print. But when the whole purpose of a transaction is about small print, like when you buy a house or insure your home, most consumers will read it or have someone they trust advise them about it. And the FTC is empowered to police contracts for sharp practices.

Leave someone a real choice on any offer and one will ask "what do you want" and "what's in it for me". If targeted advertising pays as much as it is billed to do, surely consumers will love to share their data as long as targeting advertising networks share their revenue stream.

"Your kingdom for my horse" however would be a tougher sale. Is it why self-interested businesses insist so much on the right to bundle it away?

Philippe Coueignoux

  • (*) ..... Republican Congressman Proposes Tracking Freedom of Information Act Requests, by Eric Lipton (New York Times) - January 29, 2011
  • (**) ... Facebook Friends Used in Ads, by Geoffrey A. Fowler (Wall Street Journal) - January 26, 2011
  • (***) . Pointless terms and conditions should not apply, by Lucy Kellaway (Financial Times) - January 24, 2011
  • (1) see my campaigns for eprivacy
February 2011
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