Anti-Microsoft Baloney

by Bill Fason

Interesting article by Farhad Manjoo. "Privacy advocates filed an updated complaint with the Federal Trade Commission on Wednesday charging that Microsoft's Passport service harms the privacy and security of u2018over 100 million' computer users, and that, consequently, it constitutes an u2018unfair and deceptive' trade practice."

The complaint can be viewed here.

I have not seen the Passport service, have no intention of ever using it, and am quite sure my life will continue along just fine without it. In order to reap whatever possible benefits it offers, apparently one must provide Microsoft with some information – an e-mail address and a user's country, state and zip code. Pretty scant information, actually. I had more personal information than that printed on my business cards, and I give those out like crazy to complete strangers, drop them in fishbowls in restaurants for a chance to win a free meal, and leave them on the doors of people I am trying to contact

Microsoft requests from its users such a mere smidgen of information, and yet privacy advocates have gotten themselves more agitated over the Passport service than a Komodo Dragon during rutting season. "We hope that [the FTC] will quickly order Microsoft to make some changes," said Jason Catlett, a privacy advocate at Junkbusters. You hear that? He wants the government to force Microsoft to make changes. He wants armed federal agents dispatched to appear at Microsoft if necessary to coerce Bill Gates to obey whatever decree that the FTC or federal court may issue regarding the Passport service.

No one can force me, or Mr. Catlett, to ever use Microsoft's Passport, or any other privately-offered good or service. If you do not like it, then by all means, don't use it, don't buy it, don't fill out the registration card. But why force Microsoft to adopt the privacy preferences of Jason Catlett, or anyone? Microsoft, unlike the driver license bureau, can never force me to provide them with any personal information, be it my Social Security Number, annual income, or favorite color.

Actually, I tend to agree with the good people at Electronic Privacy Information Center and its co-petitioners about 90 percent of the time, particularly when they are tackling issues such as censorship, crypto, anonymous free speech, digital cash, unsolicited advertisement faxes, and Carnivore-type surveillance programs. But mention privacy, and they stumble over themselves demanding tighter regulation on private sector business practices.

Privacy has become an apple pie issue in Washington, D.C. Everyone is for "privacy," even if there is no consensus on its meaning. Webster's defines privacy as "freedom from unauthorized intrusion," a definition obscures as much as it defines. One thing is clear: the call by EPIC and the other usual suspects for more regulation of Passport, websites, and business practices in general is misguided.

Behind much of the privacy agenda there is quite simply an agenda of anti-business authoritarianism. It's as if consumers, tenants, and debtors are presumed right while merchants, landlords and creditors are guilty until proven innocent. They see any voluntary exchange of information between buyer and seller as suspect, and any information derived from the transaction as "owned" by the consumer. They end up calling for a federal privacy czar, and an accompanying swarm of privacy bureaucrats with wide-ranging police powers a la Europe, or even worse, Canada. Imagine an FTC on steroids.

Privacy advocates should concentrate on the real threats to privacy that come from the incessant demands of government for ever more detailed information from the citizenry. If they disagree with certain privacy practices in the private sector, they should publicize their beefs. Companies don't like being publicy shamed for ignoring privacy concerns, especially when it results in reduced market share.

EPIC and company should examine the privacy practices of various businesses, and then award some kind of seal of approval to those companies which comply with privacy policies espoused by EPIC. Businesses would compete for this good privacy seal in order to capture a greater share of the market. For those consumers who prefer more privacy (myself included), the privacy seal would allow them to make more informed choices, and vote with their dollars for the goods and services offered by companies willing to adopt the kind of privacy practices which they share. If consumers are truly victimized by privacy practices, they still have the option of filing a lawsuit. Privacy torts are recognized either by statute or at common law in every state. We do not need a federal privacy czar to be free from intrusion.

Fortunately, privacy issues are not dominated by left-liberal "consumer advocates" who perceive threats to privacy from criss-cross phone directories, junk mail, and maps on the Internet. There are liberty-oriented privacy advocates with serious contributions to this topic. There is, a source for privacy policy from a free-market, pro-technology perspective.