These examples accurately suggest that we have enough technology around to provide nearly any level of privacy we want. But what do we want? In the United States, consumers have become accustomed to treating privacy as a tradable commodity-we don’t mind giving some of it away to get the goods and services we desire. Vendors are pushing for this approach because they are moving away from mass marketing to one-on-one selling, and are therefore anxious to build intimate knowledge of individual interests and habits.
To most non-Americans, however, privacy is not a tradable commodity but an inalienable right that must be guaranteed and protected, especially in the case of minors. The European Union, flexing its muscle, recently threatened to forbid its citizenry from doing electronic commerce with organizations (read U.S.) that do not meet a minimal threshold of absolute privacy guarantees. They have since backed down and gone to committee, as they and their American partners search for common ground. Last February at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, a few industrialists tried to establish a voluntary code under which vendors would give you, upon request, all personal information they have on you, explain what they plan to do with it, and correct it if asked. Adoption of this code seemed a small and achievable step, but it failed to pass. The American vendors saw it as an expensive and difficult proposition to implement, and a potential leak of their marketing approaches to adversaries.
Clearly, we disagree about the kind of privacy we want. And we don’t seem serious enough about reaching agreement-at that same meeting in Davos, I almost fell out of my chair when several world leaders asked the technologists present to “go figure out a solution to the privacy problems you brought upon us!” This abrogation of what should be a central responsibility of politicians and legislators must stop.
Let’s not surrender our privacy to the big lie of technological inevitability. Let us, instead, augment the debates of privacy specialists, with a far broader discussion in the national legislatures of the industrial world and within international organizations, focusing on one issue-the kind of privacy people want. And let’s be flexible-even though the United States sports most of the world’s Web sites, we cannot expect six billion people to automatically adopt American constitutional amendments and habits. Reaching agreement on the kind of privacy people want nationally and internationally is an important and achievable goal at this stage of our history: We should be able to do it, as we have already done with passports, trade, airlines and cross-border justice.