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Jun 02, 2003

Everything Has a Price, Including Your Private Information

by Jamie Court
 
The following Op-Ed was published in The Los Angeles Times on June 2nd, 2003:
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I bought Gov. Gray Davis' Social Security number on the Internet for $26. His home address and telephone number cost a little more. For $295, another Internet service will reveal his bank account balance.

Until Davis signs strong privacy protection legislation, his and all Californians' private information will be available for sale because corporations believe that only their commercial freedoms matter. The California Constitution articulates the inalienable right to privacy, but corporations can buy and sell an individual's private medical and financial information without the person's permission.

For the corporation, there are no individuals, only customers. Corporations claim that sharing financial information without consent allows them to better offer customers commercial opportunities. They argue that by sharing personal data, they are able to determine the products a consumer needs. The commercial benefit is all that matters to corporations. The consequence -- rampant identity theft -- is left for the individual and society to deal with.

Corporations recognize no inherent harm to the individual from this violation of privacy because, absent the relationship to the company, corporations increasingly do not recognize the individual and her societal rights. (Which explains unsolicited telemarketing messages, junk faxes and credit card solicitations.)

In the market, corporations put the system of shared private financial information into practice without asking permission. They effectively force every individual to automatically "opt in" to the system, placing the burden of time and energy on individuals to know enough to "opt out" by writing a letter specifically asking for an exemption from the sharing of their personal information.

Privacy advocates have simply wanted a standard requiring that corporations must receive written permission -- an "opt in" -- before sharing private information with other companies. Yet such modest legislation has been defeated year after year by the lobbying clout and campaign giving of banks, insurers and credit card companies. Societal and individual rights are being voided for commercial priorities.

For example, the care of children in a safe environment has always been a prerogative of parents. Yet corporations aggressively market to children in school without parental consent. Soda companies pay to "adopt" schools; in a Coke school, a student was suspended for wearing a Pepsi T-shirt on class photo day.

Such indifference to social mores has been fortified by growing corporate legal and political privileges.

The corporate opponents of the pro-privacy legislation testified in the state Capitol, for example, that the opt-in approach was an "unjustifiable burden on commerce," "may be unconstitutional" and "may violate the 1st Amendment." In other words, the corporation's free-speech rights outweigh the individual's explicit right to privacy under the California Constitution.

Since the mid-1970s, corporate lawyers have won a series of legal rulings extending the Bill of Rights to the corporation, giving it constitutional equivalence to people. The change has created huge problems for public control over the corporation, including threatening campaign finance laws because corporate spending is now considered "speech."

Protecting the individual's privacy is not just a matter of mustering the political will for an opt-in standard, even though an opt-in ballot initiative now circulating is a first step (www. californiaprivacy.org).

The larger need is to re-prioritize the mores of the individual and the society over the corporation's. A good privacy model is the European Union, where an inalienable privacy right exists.

Cities need to fight other corporate advances by declaring schools and recreation areas commercial-free zones, in the same way cell phone use is limited at restaurants.

Individuals also have to act. Every "opt out" sends a signal. Every name on the state's "do not call" list (http://nocall.doj.state.ca.us) will stop another telemarketer. Every business-reply envelope sent back empty is another cost to the junk mailer. Until the individual and society make new demands, corporate power will not concede.
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Consumer activist Jamie Court is author of "Corporateering: How Corporate Power Steals Your Personal Freedom and What to Do About It" (Tarcher/Putnam, 2003).



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