Privacy, the State and Corporations

I’ve caught snippets of the excellent series of programmes on Radio Four, chaired by Steve Hewlett of the Media Show. I know, I should listen to the full whack of all of them .

Anyway, I was struck this morning by a familiar transatlantic divide.  There were four participants in the discussion, Lord Carlile (the Lib Dem peer and former Government security adviser),  the consistently wonderful Shami Chakrabarti of Liberty,  Simon Jenkins the former editor of The Times and Jeff Jarvis, an American academic. Three British and one American.

It was noticeable how Jarvis, the sole American voice on the panel, was much less worried about corporate misuse of his private data than he was about Government misuse, while all three of the Brits were just as concerned about the likes of Google and Amazon as they were about the state.

This is not surprising. American suspicion of state authority is ingrained. The foundation of their nation lies in a revolution which we never shared, against peremptory executive power. Their constitution and Bill of Rights is built on the principle of managing and mitigating these excesses; while corporations (which American law does not really distinguish from individuals) are considered to be free citizens.  We, on the other hand, have learned to distrust corporations and actually, rather more to trust the state. We see the state as being an essential balance to the excessive power of corporations, while Jarvis considered that the power of the market, of choice, was enough to control corporate excess.

I share with Jarvis a deep distrust of state agents, but I share with the Brits a distrust of corporations.  Indeed, I think it is a fatal weakness of US jurisprudence – highlighted in the Supreme Court Case Citizens’ United vs. FEC – that corporations have essentially the same rights as individuals.   They do not, yet, have the right to vote; but Citizens United implies that they do have the right to bear arms as well as to unrestricted speech and hence political spending.  This will, I think, be the undoing of America. But I digress.

States and corporations are, in my opinion, just two classes of organisation.  In connection with states,  the relationship of citizenship comes with little choice (although there is a growing modern elite which manages by judicious planning of births,  marriages and jobs to accumulate multiple citizenships, particularly of developed nations), but we are free to choose whether or not to use Google, Amazon or Facebook.  However, states are accountable to their citizens; Google is accountable only to its shareholders.  It has a virtual monopoly on search because its search engine is so good.

I choose to use Gmail for my mail. I know that Google’s servers read my mail and target ads at me; it’s part of the deal.  I’m not really worried about that because it is an open part of the deal.  Neither do I care that Amazon might know my reading habits.    Facebook is a useful utility which I’d probably pay for, and I’m happy to let it pitch ads at me (I have never seen one which seems remotely relevant to my interests).  But Google also knows my search history, going back eighteen months at least.  I have a Google account and it’s quite possible for Google to link my search history with my profile.  It’s much less transparent about this than it is about scanning my emails.

As it happens, I don’t mind Google having this information. It’s mostly pretty dull.  It helps to pay for what is now something I couldn’t imagine doing without; I am certainly old enough to remember going to the library to look things up, and Google is much better.  But I think they need to be clear what it is they’ve got, how long they’ll keep it, and that they’ll delete it if I ask them to.   Despite its lapses,  Google is still a relatively benign corporation, but it won’t do that.

Let’s take a more complex case, a pharmaco. Pharmacos have a somewhat chequered history and are not above manipulating the truth. They have been known to suppress research that casts doubt on the safety efficacy of their products.  But I take their medicines and we will all live longer because of their work.  I’d like them to have access to as much of my private medical data as they need to do the sort of cutting-edge research – particularly in genetic science – that will help them make better medicines.  But I’d rather they didn’t share it with the public, or my insurers.


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