A private gathering

I know Michael Moore (the good Yankees cap-wearing one, not the evil WTO-helming one) has already beaten down the grass on this topic, but let me say it once more: One of the cool things about the WTO protests (the good issues-oriented ones, not the evil Trustafarians-pretending-to-be-anarchists ones) was the coalitions it brought together, rank-and-file union folk talking to social-justice activists talking to environmentalists talking to people who brought giant puppets. (That's not a slam. Like the lady said, if I can't dance, it's not my revolution. And if I choose to dance down the street with a giant puppet, ain't nobody's business if I do.)

Next stop: the privacy debate. Concern over personal privacy has intensified in the past few months, as well it should in the Age of the Networked Database. Since last we dove deep into this peculiar and murky pool, the Federal Trade Commission has released its long-awaited rules for protecting the privacy of kids online; nice, but many noted that those rules actually decrease the privacy of those kids' parents. RealNetworks got its butt handed to it for tracking listeners' usage without permission and had to release a quick-fix player upgrade. South Carolina and the Feds squared off over whether the US can restrict states' ability to sell drivers' license info. And the list goes on. And on.

The good news is that concern is rising across the political spectrum; people are coming to the side of the angels from both sides of the aisle.

From the left, privacy looks like a civil rights issue. Regular readers of this column know what that's about and who's fighting the good fight: To refresh your memory, drop by www.epic.org or www.eff.org. No, it's across the aisle I'm looking this week—into the face of folks I normally have little common ground with, or so I used to think until the Battle of Seattle helped me rethink who privacy's friends and enemies are.

From the right, privacy looks like a property-rights issue. US Representative Ron Paul (R-TX), for example, recently filed an excellent letter with the Department of Health and Human Services objecting strenuously to their proposed medical privacy regulations. His tactic? The Federal government has no business interfering in the business relationship between patients and their healthcare providers—including the right of patients to negotiate with healthcare providers whatever level of privacy they want and the right to take to task providers that violate the privacy agreement so negotiated.

Paul worries about stuff like national ID cards and the nasty "Know Your Customer" regulations your bank would like to use to monitor your financial transactions. His view that privacy is best protected by the private sector is one I hold gingerly (if at all), but his insistence that all legal rights are property rights is right in line with centuries of Western law, and it clears my head to consider his arguments. His Privacy Forum Web page is good stuff; check it out at www.house.gov/paul/openingpage.htm.

Neither approach is wrong—or, rather, a given approach only looks wrong if you're standing at an awkward angle. No one's saying that privacy advocates are destined to agree on much beyond the need for protections, or even that such agreements would serve a useful goal. (If you're seriously whingeing right now about the ends not justifying the means, you are either hopelessly underinformed about how political coalitions rise and fall or you are the reason the American Left disintegrated into a thousand-thousand hairsplitting discussions over the past quarter-century about which subculture is most oppressed. Shut the hell up; you've done enough damage.)

Again: The enemy of your enemy is your friend in the privacy war. Left and right haven't got time to become best buddies. The entities that would take away our financial, medical, and other personal privacy have a practically unbeatable head start already. Neither the Federal government nor the direct-marketing industry nor the HMOs are going to wait for the left or the right to become the dominant voice of the opposition. They will, however, be happy to take advantage of the confusion—and in case you haven't noticed, once your personal, private information is out of your control, it stays that way.

The miracle of the WTO protests was that each element retained its identity and voiced its concerns without falling prey to the urge to beat down fellow travelers; as happens far too rarely in American activism, the various constituencies spent less time wringing their hands about strange bedfellows than they did facing the common enemy. If we have any hope of protecting what's left of our privacy rights, those concerned with such issues better take a page from that playbook.

 
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