[IWAR] PRIVACY two new books, reviewed

From: 7Pillars Partners (partnersat_private)
Date: Tue Apr 21 1998 - 09:44:25 PDT

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    This is just between us, right? 
     [ 2 1 S T__B O O K S ]
     "GUIDE" TO
     - - - - - -
     BY MATTHEW DEBORD | These two very different
     yet somehow eerily similar books take as their
     primary drums to thump the "Three Ps" currently
     dominating discussions of cyberspace's rapidly
     evolving future: privacy, protection and
     pornography. Both are dispiritingly tainted by a
     troubling series of misconceptions about what
     privacy really means. 
     "Protecting Yourself Online," apart from
     arrogantly labeling itself the "definitive resource"
     on anything other than its own agenda, carries an
     additional designation as an Electronic Frontier
     Foundation "guide" (there will, presumably, be
     more). "Primer" might be a more accurate way of
     assessing what its committee of authors has
     cooked up under the guise of practical tips. A real
     troublemaker would go a step further and call it
     Peppered with boxed comments gleaned from the
     EFF digerati ("We're not left-wing or right-wing,
     we're up-wing," exults EFF co-founder John
     Gilmore in a sunny piece of ideological frippery)
     and sentences that conclude with exclamation
     points or hum with italics, Gelman & co.'s effort
     operates on two levels. Writing of the relationship
     between individuals and innovation, the authors
     point out that if "consumers" want to fully enjoy
     the good stuff just around the technological bend,
     they'll "want to be sure that the 'keys' that give
     access to sensitive personal data belong to us
     alone and are in our control." 
     That sounds dandy, but -- like almost everything
     else about this insipid little meta-manifesto -- its
     innocuousness and seeming self-evidence forges
     the support that the book's superstructure requires:
     a re-engineering of the public's understanding of
     privacy and the protection of information. 
     Cyberpunditry has perhaps done more to
     promulgate hooey about the meaning of privacy
     than any other enterprise ever. The most common
     error, undergirding much of "Protecting Yourself
     Online's" apparently benign recommendations, is
     that privacy is a natural right, closely allied with
     freedom and personal liberty, and solidified, at
     least in the United States, by the Constitution and
     the Bill of Rights. The worst thing about this
     narrative isn't that it's flat wrong, but that it will
     seem accurate to many of the people who will
     achieve their false grasp of privacy from the EFF
     The truth is that privacy was "discovered" by the
     Supreme Court and given its fullest articulation
     through Justice William O. Douglas' famous
     majority opinion in 1965's Griswold vs.
     Connecticut. Douglas argued that while the sacred
     documents of the Republic were silent on the
     matter of privacy, they emanated certain legal
     "penumbras" that permitted the establishment of
     zones of privacy. Many critics have jeered this
     ruling since, but the activist thinking that spurred it
     remains: Though privacy isn't recognized in the
     basic texts, it must be there because it needs to be,
     in order for modern life to function. This doesn't
     change the fact, however, that privacy is a legal
     afterthought, divined not naturally but established
     through representative government -- a
     cumbersome bureaucracy the EFF would like to
     expel from the debate. 
     The EFF's general distaste for all vestiges of
     centralized control -- "Relying on the government
     to protect your privacy is like asking a Peeping
     Tom to install your window blinds," quips cowboy
     cyberguru John Perry Barlow, EFF's resident
     libertarian -- leads the organization conveniently to
     forget that American democracy is not, as the
     authors would have it, "true" but representative,
     and therefore diluted. It was not the people
     themselves who plucked privacy from the ether,
     but a court assembled by elected presidents;
     privacy is not, therefore, the natural state of
     information, but an established right, an artifice
     requiring government maintenance. 
     This confusion leads the authors to promote some
     bogus affinities, such as one between anonymity --
     another absolute right, in their view, dictated by
     privacy -- and the writers of the Federalist Papers,
     who were of course American history's first great
     boosters of central government, as well as men
     who published anonymously, but who were
     hardly unknowns themselves. "We do want rules,"
     EFF chairwoman Esther Dyson argues in her
     introduction, "we just don't want rules imposed by
     centralized powers that tend to flout their own
     values, at times in secret." Anonymous individuals
     are OK, but anonymous institutions are inherently
    The only value the EFF wishes to flout is the
     sanctity of child rearing. Where questions of
     unregulated content intersect with the increasing
     availability of pornography, "Protecting Yourself
     Online" effectively ditches the "Yourself" part of
     its title and adopts "Your Children" as an emblem
     of its authors' responsible intentions. They offer
     this as a counterweight to their frequently restated
     loathing for the 1973 Supreme Court case Miller
     vs. California, a decision that established the
     current U.S. obscenity standard. They would like
     to see the court take the radical step of updating
     its obscenity test, but they would also like to
     decide for themselves, within their own online
     communities, what their children can and can't
     view. It's a typical piece of narcissistic EFF logic:
     Overturn the "community standards" segment of
     Miller, but do so according to the priorities of our
     community, one that -- as Barlow has maintained
     -- is not beholden to the law of the land, anyway. 
     In "Net.wars," Wendy Grossman, a freelance
     journalist who has worked the technological
     waterfront since 1992, manages to avoid, for the
     most part, the EFF's restyled definitions of privacy
     rights -- but that's only because her mind seems to
     be too incoherent to latch onto a political chimera
     in the same way that Dyson would. "I hate being
     edited," she claims in her acknowledgments, and it
     Most journalists have been trained to rig their
     investigations around a narrative spine, but not
     Grossman, whose ramblings lope from Barlow
     hagiography to deconstructions of Barlow's
     free-range notion (expressed in his "Cyberspace
     Independence Declaration") of cyberspace as a
     transnational frontier that cannot be compelled to
     submit to earthbound law. Grossman made her
     reputation with a 1996 piece in Wired about the
     Church of Scientology's efforts to harass people
     who had infringed its copyright online, and a
     version of that saga has been included here.
     Drowned in arcane detail, however, it's impossible
     to imagine how a reader unfamiliar with the
     debate, with Scientology's litigious appetites and
     bizarre philosophy, or with the
     alt.religion.scientology newsgroup on Usenet will
     be able to make sense of this important instance of
     the Net outpacing conventional copyright law's
     ability to keep up. 
     Grossman fares somewhat better with her
     discussions of pornography, bringing a needed
     dose of skeptical realism into the controversy, and
     her accounts of the federal government's botched
     efforts to control exports of encryption software
     and to sustain the ill-fated Communications
     Decency Act of 1996 are chock-full of
     information. Unfortunately, none of it is
     distinguished by much of an angle, beyond her
     feeling that government regulation in cyberspace is
     hamstrung by ignorance among the regulators. It is
     perhaps a lot to ask of a reporter, but "Net.wars"
     could have used at least a smidgen of theory to
     characterize the stakes of the combat that
     Grossman believes will only intensify in the next
     century, as the Net expands and fewer people
     have the luxury of blissful ignorance. 
     On balance, Grossman's undisciplined dispatch
     from what she perceives as the frontier is
     altogether less galling than the EFF's attempt to
     colonize that frontier and enlist its new inhabitants
     in a state-slaying entrepreneurial army.
     Information may want to be free, but the vast
     majority of the world's citizens may not want to
     let it out of its cage. 
     SALON | April 21, 1998 

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