Privacy Concerns Reach the Masses

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Two high-profile columnists from The New York Times really laid into the privacy issue these past few days, both calling for more regulation on the use of consumers' personal information.

First, William Safire wrote that corporate mergers and e-surveillance are "pulverizing the walls of personal privacy" and that our bank accounts, health records, genetic codes, shopping habits and sexual interests are up for sale to marketers. Then, Thomas L. Friedman worried about the power of database marketing because a hotel chain he frequents keeps information about him and his family. It seems that he went swimming in the hotel pool, lost his room key and got a new one just by verifying some personal data the hotel maintains on him from a previous visit. (Isn't this convenience?) "The Internet super-empowers individuals, Web sites, corporations and even hotels," he wrote, "so they can amass huge amounts of information outside of any government supervision."

The two differ in their opinions on what action needs to be taken. Friedman asked: "Are we moving into an age where [our right to privacy] will only be respected on land, but not in cyberspace? If the Constitution ends where the Web begins, well, beware of Little Brother." Safire didn't seem as urgent. "Laws need not always be the answer: to avert regulation, smart businesses will compete to assure customers' right to decide." Though Friedman is mistaken about privacy being in the Constitution and is too quick with that "Little Brother" analogy (wasn't government - not the free market - the issue in George Orwell's "1984"?), they are getting their point across to the masses, which, in turn, will push legislators to make it a hot button in next year's elections.

As we've said time and time again, self regulation is the key. That's why our industry must prove we use consumer information responsibly. The Friedmans of the world need to see the database the hotel maintains on its guests as beneficial, rather than wonder if it could be bad.

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