Privacy And Sausages Are Unlike Laws

Julia Angwin (“Has Privacy Become a Luxury Good?” New York Times, March 4),  describes the difficulties faced by people trying to maintain the privacy of their personal data. Although an individual can purchase goods and services for the purpose, high cost mitigates their usefulness and availability, not only in the monetary sense but in the amount of effort, time and research necessary to find them and keep them running, and the lack of clear and verified criteria of their efficacy. Drawing an analogy with organic food, and conceding that in both cases market demand has made safer products more accessible and usable, Angwin concludes that the regulatory state is the only means to guarantee them to more than “those with disposable money and time”: “Our government enforces baseline standards for the safety of all food and has strict production and labeling requirements for organic food. It may be time to start doing the same for our data.”

But the parallels to food safety are, on the contrary, a textbook illustration of why the regulatory state cannot be a trustworthy protector of digital privacy.

As a body of scholarship originating from Gabriel Kolko’s “The Triumph of Conservatism” four decades ago has explained, food regulation in the United States has always primarily promoted the industrialized, highly-processed food production model of the large-scale businesses that have always had chief influence over it. Even when regulation “enforces baseline standards for the safety of all food,” the implementation imposes as many of the costs as possible onto smaller businesses and off larger businesses. It also preempts demands for stricter voluntary safety standards, sometimes even overtly ruling them out, such as when small meatpacker Creekstone Farms Premium Beef was blocked by the U.S. Department of Agriculture from testing all of its cattle for mad cow disease. And ever since, safety regulation has been favored by big businesses during safety crises to establish minimum standards adequate enough to regain public trust, but lower than the costlier de facto standards that would otherwise be imposed by competition. In 2005, Microsoft called for “privacy legislation that would set a uniform standard for the collection, storage and use of personal information” just as its software was starting to lose out to more secure competitors.

As large businesses are shielded from smaller-scale competition, their swelling organizational complexity requires them to both become more opaque to, and demand greater transparency from, individuals. Thus the increasing difficulty of consumers determining, both figuratively and literally, “what’s in the meat” while data about them is collected on larger and larger scales by both big business and government (which, given its own ever-multiplying surveillance scandals, seems a very inappropriate fox to guard this particular hen house).

A healthier populace can only result from a more comprehensive social transformation toward human-scale institutions. This was foreseen by such decentralist, antistate thinkers as Murray Bookchin, who noted in 1952 that “The Problem of Chemicals In Food” was a side effect of an overly-centralized society, and that “[i]t is doubtful if legislation will do anything to arrest this trend;” and Ralph Borsodi, who in the 1920s advocated organic-farming ends via the laissez-faire means of small-scale, local production at lower prices than the rising processed-foods industry. Get corporate dinosaurs off subsidized life support at taxpayer expense, and the full flowering of a free market in data privacy will make it dirt-common.

Translations for this article:

Anarchy and Democracy
Fighting Fascism
Markets Not Capitalism
The Anatomy of Escape
Organization Theory