Bradner's column: Americans as second-class citizens

If the press reports are to be believed, and they are all too believable, the Clinton administration is about to codify its opinion that US citizens are second class when it comes to the Internet. The administration is about to agree with European officials that a European's privacy is more important and deserves better protection than does an American's.

The European Union last year passed laws to protect the privacy of individuals. Basically, the laws require companies that collect information about you to tell you that they are doing so and why, and to give you a chance to opt out. For more sensitive data, the individual has to grant specific permission before that data can be shared.

The Europeans threatened to ban US companies from doing business in Europe, including over the Internet, unless they agreed to the rules. The Clinton administration first tried to get the Europeans to back down, but they would not. Then the administration proposed a plan by which US businesses could claim that they would meet the rules and be allowed to do business. Part of the administration's plan is that adherence to the European rules would be required only when companies were doing business with European citizens, and not be mandatory when the same companies dealt with US citizens.

This is not the first time this administration has come down on the side of the privacy abusers. To this administration, details of one's personal life - including religious or political views, sexual practices and maybe even medical history - are fair game for exploitation by anyone with the money.

The administration claims that voluntary programs will protect us from the abuses of the database industry. But these officials must be on another planet, if not in another universe.

The administration argues against legal penalties. There are no risks to the data abusers other than the remote possibility that some abused individual will have the gumption to sue for the few dollars that the courts might award for "actual damages". The Clinton administration pretends to think that the billion-dollar business of knowing you better than you know yourself will protect your rights. I'd say what I really think about this, but my editor would undoubtedly cut the adjectives.

It's a mixed blessing that Congress is reviewing more than 50 bills written to protect the privacy of Internet users. Although it is good to see that someone in Washington understands the unreality behind the grave concern for individual rights that big business repeatedly claims, most of Congress lives in a clue-free zone when it comes to technical realities. (For example, I fully expect some Congressional critter to introduce legislation to postpone the Year 2000 deadline.) But I do hope that something will come out of Congress that works better than the administration's plan to pray to the tooth fairy.

Disclaimer: Some people say that Harvard has too many clues for the good of others, but this rant is my own.

Scott Bradner is a consultant with Harvard University's University Information Systems. He can be reached at sob@harvard.edu.

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