The White House has been caught once again violating individual rights in an act of outrageous political hypocrisy. It’s an old headline, but one made necessary yet again by the government’s attempt to spy on users of public websites.
For two years, the White House has been haranguing owners of large websites, telling them not to violate their visitors’ supposed right to privacy. On the face of it, this is absurd. The proper way to think about websites is as private property. When you go to a website, you are a visitor on someone else’s property; the owner has the right to record what interests you. If you don’t like it, you shouldn’t visit. It’s that simple.
The government’s attempt to restrict the right of private sites to collect information, then, is nothing short of a violation of private-property rights. It also has the effect of hampering commerce, because, it turns out, websites like you to visit, particularly if you have commercial purposes in mind. If they didn’t want you to visit, they would install password protection or charge for the service. If they do want you there, the site has an incentive not to collect information in a way that is objectionable to you.
All of the issues raised about collecting and using information on the net are easily settled by the free market. For example, Microsoft has come out with software that informs users precisely what kind of information is being gathered as they surf. There may indeed be a demand to know. At the same time, consumers have an interest in having companies gather information. Amazon.com, for example, tracks your purchases and surfings with the hope of serving you better. When you go to the opening page, the site displays titles that interest you and you alone. This is a fabulous marketing technique, and it benefits buyer and seller.
If you have ever frequented a small bookstore that knows your interests, and saves books for you behind the counter, you know what I mean. Clothing stores also gather information on the sizes and styles preferred by their best customers. This kind of attention to the customer is good business and highly praiseworthy. If a customer were to denounce the proprietor as a violator of privacy for knowing what books he likes, or what sizes he wears, he would rightly be regarded as a lunatic.
Cookies are an especially important means for commercial web enterprises to target advertising to customers. Whereas a newspaper ad or a billboard goes out to the general public, the cookies technology allows advertisers to inform the group most interested in the products or services they have to offer. The company called Doubleclick, which has developed much of the software that makes this possible, has been attacked and reviled by opponents of web commerce, but in fact it is on the cutting edge of making the web commercially viable.
There is even a case for general snooping on surfers, in the same way that retail stores use cameras and other means of inventory controls. They need to know what their visitors are doing in order to protect their property from misuse. Again, if the customers don’t like being watched, there is an easy solution: don’t go there.
The silliest aspect of the government’s privacy campaign is that the government is the biggest violator of real privacy rights. The government forces us to fill out census and tax forms that no one would file absent coercion of the state. They use this information to track our whereabouts and loot our income, to bully us with their central plans and social-engineering schemes. It is precisely this form of privacy invasion that ought to concern us, not the attempt by commercial enterprises to serve us better.
So it is not surprising to discover that the federal government has used its own websites to do exactly this. Before the practice was exposed and discontinued, the National Drug Control Policy Office was dropping cookies onto its visitors’ hard drives, and using those cookies to track their web use. If you went to the White House site, and then looked at a site that came up from a search for "pot," you would get a little message from the federal government telling you to stop using drugs. It is not only outrageously invasive; the practice violated the federal government’s own policy goals for private-sector sites.
The federal government runs thousands of websites, and some of them actually have some useful information on them, particularly for those of us interested in tracking official lies. And yet, many of us have wondered what kind of information these people were collecting on us. Surely the government wouldn’t use its web presence to track our interests. Think again.
What is the correct policy on web privacy? It’s very simple: privacy for the people who want to surf on dot gov sites, and no privacy for the government. There should be no cookies on the feds’ websites. They are public property and they should allow unlimited usage and contain every bit of information the public wants to know about the state. On the other hand, private websites should be treated like private property, with the owners having the final say over what kinds of information to collect and use.
There is no contradiction here: the distinction between public and private property is fundamental in a free society. But as usual, the Clinton administration has the truth reversed, trying to prevent private owners from managing their property even as they treat the government as their own private weapon to wield against the rest of us.