Column: Can We Get Any More One-Sided?

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For yet another example of how out of whack the national privacy debate is, consider an article last week on ABCNews.com.


The lead alone is a tip-off that people who use data for marketing are about to get slapped around: "Do you know what's happening with your personal data on the Web? Chances are, you don't."


OK, minor philosophical point here, but if an individual sells an automobile to another individual, and both the buyer and the seller record the transaction on paper, or even -- gasp! -- on a computer, who owns the record of the transaction? The buyer? The seller?


Could it be ... BOTH?


And if the two parties make similar transactions and record them, say, 10 times, would the information surrounding the transactions still belong to both?


Suddenly, we have a database.


Why is it that when someone buys a sweater from J. Crew, the information is assumed to belong to the buyer only, as in "your personal information?" Could it be that the privacy movement is a thinly veiled attack on capitalism and the free exchange of information? Gee, just maybe.


When a value-for-value exchange takes place between two private entities, the information surrounding the transaction logically belongs to both parties.


And if there has been a single privacy story in the consumer press that challenges the blatantly illogical assumption that transactional data belong to only one party, please point it out.


Meanwhile, let's read on in ABCNews.com's piece:


"Many Web companies have so-called privacy policies -- agreements with the users about what can and can't be done with any sensitive data they may disclose online. But privacy advocates note that such policies are hardly ever read -- or understood -- by consumers.


"'Privacy policies are supposed to address what companies do with a user's information,' says Ari Schwartz, associate director of the Center for Democracy and Technology in Washington, DC. 'But they're often too confusing and filled with legalese.'"


Translation: Consumers either don't read the policies or are too stupid to figure them out. The reason: Companies have the gall to respond to legal challenges with their lawyers, resulting in documents that read like they were written by ... lawyers.


In the current climate, what executive wouldn't have lawyers craft their privacy policy?


But wait, there's more:


"And sometimes amid that confusion, potential for abuses (or 'mistakes') [notice the quotes] can occur.


"For example, nearly 1 million visitors had entered personal medical histories on the once-thriving DrKoop.com Web site with the understanding that such data would not be shared with other companies.


"But when the Web site went bankrupt last year, company executives attempted to sell such customer information along with other company assets to Vitacost.com, another online consumer health site and potential suitor.


"Users -- along with several states attorneys general -- managed to successfully bar the sale of such sensitive information by filing suit."


If DrKoop.com's executives shortsightedly crafted their privacy policy barring them from selling their customer database even to another health company in the event of business failure, so be it. They shouldn't sell it, and, in fact, were prevented from allegedly trying to do so. But did the reporter even think to ask how much -- or little -- such information might be worth? Nah.


Press reports on privacy are overwhelmingly one-sided with hardly a peep from those who advocate the free flow of information necessary for a free market economy.


It was just under two years ago that Direct Marketing Association president/CEO H. Robert Wientzen announced a privacy consumer education campaign at the DMA's 83rd Annual Conference and Exhibition in New Orleans.


The campaign was touted as a three-year, multimillion-dollar effort that would enable the DMA to change consumers' conceptions about privacy and let them know how they benefit from marketers' use of information. Never happened.


Granted, the announcement came just as we were unknowingly poised to walk off an economic cliff and potential funds dried up, but is a friendly phone call to ABCNews.com to try to get some balance into the next piece too much to ask? How about it, Bob?


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