Privacy or State Monopoly on Info?

The non-aggression principle, which calls us to respect other’s rights, vindicates privacy. It leaves individuals free within their realms of self-rule to share or withhold whatever parts of their personal lives they see fit. As expositors of nonviolence and voluntary order, libertarians see coercion as the expedient of those more impertinent and threatening invasions into personal life.

Because the state embodies institutionalized coercion, it’s the greatest threat to privacy rights, the variables of which determine the kinds of information percolating through society. Even for a straightforward rule like the non-aggression principle, however, the Internet presents conceptual difficulties rooted in the challenge of linking intangible “things” found in cyberspace with rights that could justify enforcement or protection.

We might think, just as intellectual property is actually a subversion and bastardization of authentic property rights, that privacy rights within the context of the Internet are a suspect attempt to control what people are allowed to do with their material belongings. Nonetheless, where those immaterial, disembodied pieces of data floating in the information ether implicate real, physical goods or money — as with credit card numbers — that may seem to call for proactive government privacy protection.

Under the guise of that ostensible need, the Wall Street Journal reports (“Watchdog Planned for Online Privacy,” Nov. 11), the “Obama administration is preparing a stepped-up approach to policing Internet privacy.”

Anticipating new controls and the creation of an agency under the Federal Trade Commission to regulate Internet privacy, the administration has assembled a task force to investigate strategies for supervising data submitted to web sites. The move, thought to “mark a turning point in Internet policy” and a departure from the approaches of earlier administrations, tracks the European Union’s recent emphasis on a somewhat histrionically termed “right to be forgotten.”

Whatever that bit of poetic subterfuge means, protection of personal information is not — as European Commissioner Viviane Reding has declared — a “fundamental right,” at least not in the way that she or President Obama apprehend the notion. Considering their proclivity for wiretapping, surveillance cameras, and centralized databases on our health and finances, overtures of love for privacy from governments — especially the United States — ring rather false.

The Center for Democracy and Technology’s Jim Dempsey, an advocate of state intervention, cites “the ease [with which] data can be collected and shared” in calling for a government regulatory structure. The power disparities between the Internet’s commercial titans and consumers of their services are similarly adduced as evidence confirming a role for the state. But if consolidation of data and the connivance of business powerhouses are motivating concerns, then the leprous touch of the state should avoided rather than embraced.

Even absent the ability to predict the exact shape the new policy will take, enforcement of anything the President’s task force devises will necessitate extensive government access to our private information. Are we really so credulous as to believe that, although Facebook and Google lack the incentives to guard our information, the debauched political class would? In spite of the fact that virtually all instances of consumer data monopolization take place either within the state or due to its system of corporate patronage, we’re expected to regard its bureaucrats as not only disinterested, but capable of preserving privacy?

The standard bromide, continuously parroted by the statist media, is that free market institutions cannot be trusted to “govern themselves” in connection with our privacy. They’re right, but only if we accept their equivocal use of the phrase “free market,” a use that makes violent state corporatism interchangeable with voluntary exchanges between consenting individuals. Voluntary agreements in a free society could and would sufficiently limit the diffusion of sensitive information through the web, but it would require the fracture of the state’s calcified relationships of aggression.

Were the choice really between staid government oversight, assiduously attending to our privacy, and a lawless condition of mayhem, we would have no reason to resist the state’s blandishments. That, however, is not the choice. Instead, we have to ask just how much control over this kind of information we want the destructive, corrupt institution most culpable for privacy violations to wield.

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