Privacy and Political Pandering
Insurance Experts' Forum, November 16, 2010
Much has been written (including by this blogger) about the issue of Internet privacy, yet judging by the steady increase in information theft and misuse, little has been done that would make any of us rest any easier.
Such dilemmas are ripe for political opportunism, however, and our current administration knows a good opportunity when it sees one. According to The Wall Street Journal, the Obama administration is preparing a stepped-up approach to policing Internet privacy that calls for new laws and the creation of a new position to oversee the effort.
The Obama administration is letting everyone know that the grand strategy is expected to be unveiled in a report being issued by the U.S. Commerce Department in coming weeks, the WSJ story says. The report isn't yet final and could change, according to sources quoted by the Journal.
In a related move, the White House has created a special task force that is expected to help transform the Commerce Department recommendations into policy, says the Journal report. “The White House task force, set up three weeks ago, is led by Cameron Kerry, the brother of Sen. John Kerry (D., Mass.) and Commerce Department general counsel, and Christopher Schroeder, assistant attorney general at the Department of Justice.”
The Journal adds that, “The initiatives would mark a turning point in Internet policy. Recent administrations typically steered away from Internet regulations out of concern for stifling innovation. But the increasingly central role of personal information in the Internet economy helped spark government action, according to people familiar with the situation.”
Well, that certainly makes sense, but whenever I see a politician pulling a grandstand play like this—especially a politician who has become so unpopular—I wonder at the motives behind the play. The key question: Who stands to benefit from all this? The obvious answer is President Obama.
In one fell swoop, this cunningly-conceived public relations move (and its effect will be little more than that) panders to the political right—which wants regulations protecting privacy for individuals—while putting real control in the hands of the political left, that is, Obama and friends. Assuming any kind of effective legislation emerges from this effort, the President will happily take credit for being a champion of the consumer, just in time for his re-election bid. At the same time, however, enforcement of such a law would likely be controlled by the Federal Trade Commission, which is part of the Obama administration.
With “privacy” being such a subjective concept, the President could make sure his friends were not bothered by the FTC, while also allowing partisan persecution of political enemies. So if you’re an insurance company stepping over the line in your Internet marketing, your ability to continue to do so might easily rest with the quality of your relationship with those in the FTC or the administration as a whole.
Then again, maybe I’m making too much out of all this. Let’s wait and see what the administration tells us about how it will protect privacy—and just who will determine if and when privacy is being violated.
I’d like to think this is a breath of fresh air, but something smells just a bit like last month’s spoiled cod shipment.
Ara C. Trembly (www.aratremblytechnology.com) is the founder of Ara Trembly, The Tech Consultant, and a longtime observer of technology in insurance and financial services.
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