Whose Privacy Are We Protecting?

Internet privacy, the issue that just won’t seem to go away, is back and heating up again. However, while the rhetoric may be flying, the consumer isn’t reaping any real benefits. So far, it seems that re-definitions of “privacy” and related concepts are only giving cover to giant corporations who don’t want outsiders peering at them through the knothole in the fence.

Last week, Amazon.com announced that it will allow individuals and companies to withhold their data from the online giant’s ‘Purchase Circles,’ lists that reveal the shopping habits at thousands of companies, cities and schools. The Seattle-based company began posting the lists earlier this month, using data from more than its 10 million Internet customers’ book, video and music orders. If nothing else, the lists were thought to be good for a laugh.

The program revealed a wide variety of reading tastes. For instance, it showed that in Anchorage, Alaska, one of the top selling books was Hide Your Assets and Disappear. In Las Vegas, Nevada, Dr. Atkins’ New Diet Revolution is a big hit.

But it was the corporation lists that sparked controversy. While some found it humorous that Citicorp employees were reading Double Your Profits in 6 Months or Less and that Nabisco workers ordered copies of Protein Power, some companies protested, suggesting that Amazon could be tipping off their competition.

The Washington, D.C.-based Electronic Privacy Information Center also failed to see the humor in Amazon’s actions. They believe that if Amazon publishes data about purchasing circles of smaller companies, they may be easily traced back to individuals.

Ford Motor Wins Restraining Order

A separate battle reached a breaking point last week when Ford Motor Co. won a temporary restraining order against Robert Lane, a 32-year-old nursing student who has posted sensitive internal documents on his Web site BlueOvalNews.com. Lane claims that the information was fed to him by employees of the huge auto maker.

While the saga hasn’t yet played out in court, Lane claims that by stopping him from posting the sometimes embarrassing documents, Ford is interfering with the First Amendment right of free speech. Ford counters that Lane is guilty of copying and disseminating internal documents and unlawfully using its blue Ford oval trademark on his Web site. Moreover, Ford alleges that Lane solicited its employees for the information.

Not All Black And White

Some legal experts say that the First Amendment does not apply to Lane in the way it would a journalist. Others disagree, however, saying that Lane should be protected because his postings are helping consumers by exposing important information that Ford wanted to suppress.

The Internet is so new that such dilemmas continue to occur daily. Yet, it seems to me that another very old principle is coming into play: Some companies will hide behind a battery of lawyers to protect themselves from public scrutiny. My question to Ford is: What do you have to hide?

Shame on those who think the Lanes of world should be quieted under the all-too-convenient claim of “privacy.” Let’s encourage them to dig even deeper.

What do you think? Let’s talk about it.

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