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This page responds to one of the ten recommended laws proposed by C-Net to regulate the Internet.

  The problem:  The "information highway" has a lot of information on it about individuals who would rather not have it published.  There have been abuses, such as the publication of listings of unlisted/unpublished phone numbers.  People want to protect their personal privacy, and the Internet makes that very difficult.

The proposal:  "Online services and Web publishers should be prohibited from publishing personal information online--like home addresses, phone numbers, e-mail addresses, or Social Security numbers--unless they obtain permission or get the data from another source that has been authorized to release it online."


The survey:  At the time of my visit, 15,036 "netizens" had voted, with 92% supporting the proposal, against 8% opposing it.
I'd like to know what you think
  I can't help feeling that C-Net is blowing smoke out of both sides of its mouth.  We were just told that anyone who says something on the Internet should be required to reveal personal information about themselves; now we are told that personal information about individuals should not be able to be published without the individual approving such publication--even if it is readily available in publicly accessible off-line services.

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  But we can understand that there is a distinction here.  If I choose to make comments on the Internet, it might be unfair for me to fail to identify myself; but for the millions who are not computer-literate or Internet-connected, is it fair to release information about them in an arena in which they are not participants?  The majority of "netizens" appear to think it is not.

  However, there is another question which should be asked in this connection:  what would be the consequences to the Internet if we ban such publication?

  Let us observe that C-Net is proposing that in order for information to be published online, the person who is the subject of that information must give specific permission for that information to be published on line.  It is not sufficient that the information is within the public domain, and discoverable by anyone who has the time and resources to seek it.  The person whose information is being published must give permission for that information to be released on the Internet specifically.

  Let's stop and think about what this means.  At the current time, you can find phone numbers from all over the world, quickly and easily and cheaply, over the Internet.  You can also get such phone numbers from directory assistance, by making a phone call--but there is a charge for this.  You can also buy phone books for most areas, and many are available on compact disk.  But I doubt if as many as one percent of the customers of phone companies around the world have ever given specific permission for their names or phone numbers to be published in any medium other than the phone book--and I severely doubt whether they could obtain permission from even ten percent of their existing customers to do so.  But what would be the use of an Internet phone book containing only one in ten telephones?  Little use at all.

  I've used the Yahoo! maps.  I was amazed at how accurately the system was able to precisely locate my house, given my address.  Is that personal information, or not?  Certainly the location of my street is public information; but most road maps do not have the locations of houses by street address.  However, the way the system works, it is likely that in a small town like mine, if any one house had to be left out of the system because the owner did not wish its location displayed, it would probably mean the entire town would have to be deleted.  And remember:  it doesn't matter that my address and the location of my lot are matters of public record.  They are personal information about me, and if I have not given my specific permission for them to be on the Internet, then the Yahoo! maps will have to go.

  So if we require specific permission for information to be published on the Internet, then some information will become available only to those who can afford to buy it, and other kinds of information may cease to be available altogether.

  But what if we require only general permission for material to be published--if we make the rule such that information may be published on the Internet if and only if it is legal to publish it anywhere--that is, if the subject of the information has given permission for the data to be released publicly, or if it is lawful for such information to be published in any medium without such permission, then it may be published on the web.  But in this case, the exception will swallow the rule:  most of the information which "netizens" wish to keep private isn't really private because it's already published in the public arena, and so will be fair game.  But is it better to live in a world where most people can find out about you, or in a world in which anyone who wants to find out about you and has the money can do so?  Note that nothing in the proposed law would prevent someone on the Internet to sell access to a private database which contains such information, as long as it's not delivered via modem or similar connection.  That actually makes it more likely that such information will become available--since no one will be able to publish it free on the Internet, the financial incentive to compile it and sell it on CD is created--and only the people you really didn't want to have access to it will have it.

  What about those abuses cited by C-Net?  I'm afraid that there's some missing information in the story.  When Yahoo! published eighty-five million unlisted phone numbers, how did they get these?  The phone company doesn't offer a public service to identify the owners of unlisted phones; this information is only available to government and law enforcement agencies on an as-needed basis.  So how did Yahoo get it?  My guess--the only thing that makes sense to me--is that they got it from the phone company.  The only other alternative is that the numbers were not actually unpublished, but were publicly available from sources other than the phone company.  However it was done, I smell lawsuit.  Someone breached a confidence or a contract, and damages will range quite high.  We have a class action suit here, and will sue for all the money paid to be unlisted by all members of the class since they became unlisted, as well as the costs to replace the previous numbers with new unlisted numbers, the inconvenience and expense of providing the change of number information to those whom we intended to have it--this is only the beginning of the damages.  People who have paid for their privacy have legal recourse.  The rest of us have chosen by default to allow any information published by the phone company to be freely available to anyone who seeks it.

  With C-Net's proposed law, you might not be so well known to the masses--people couldn't just look you up on the Internet after visiting your web site--but your privacy wouldn't be protected from any investigator who really mattered; so I voted against it.  The difference between published information and information published on the web is only a matter of how determined to find it the seeker happens to be, and what resources he has.  I am more comfortable knowing that I can easily find out about him that which he can discover about me.


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