Wednesday, June 12, 2013

No, Marc Ambinder, spamming me with ads is not the worst thing a private corporation can do to me

So I've been out of the country for a week, i.e. ye olde DVR has a serious backlog of Hayes, Maddow, Kornacki, and MHP. I'll probably delete most of those (though Ms Heelfilcher tells me I would find last Monday's TRMS a good watch), but did get to this Monday's All In yesterday. Since Southern Beale made some good points about a segment on Monday's show, I thought I'd pile on.

Hayes had a panel of three on to talk about surveillance/metadata: Amy Goodman, Karen Finney, and Marc Ambinder. SB:
Marc Ambinder then jumped in with his notion that there’s a big difference between corporations and the government having this information, the worst a corporation can do is send you coupons in the mail, but the government can actually put you in jail. That’s an extraordinarily dumb argument, and Ambinder should know better. First of all, being deluged with advertising messaging is incredibly invasive (I wrote about it here). But also, we live in an era when corporations are polluting our elections with dark money and trying to hide their true agenda behind shadowy groups like Americans For Prosperity and FreedomWorks. So to say the worst thing a corporation can do is send you some unwanted ads is extraordinarily obtuse. They’re trying to undermine our entire democratic process, Ambinder. They’re unraveling the very fabric of our democracy. You goddamn fool.
All of what Southern Beale says here is true, but I don't think it cuts nearly to the heart of the matter.

I leave for other posts the questions of whether it is or should be legal for the feds to demand customer data from companies in the absence of a specific criminal investigation and warrants specifically naming upon probable cause the items to be sought or turned over (short version: probably legal, definitely shouldn't be). Ambinder's position is that since the government holds the monopoly on publicly sanctioned force, the fact that data tracing out individuals' private lives in stunning detail lies in private hands should only be worrisome to the extent that that information is available to the government.

Here are some thought-experiments, Marc: imagine that you are, oh, a journalist. And that you have a story that embarrasses some powerful entity. Now, "powerful" is all relative: if you're one of the 3.5 fulltime employees at the tri-county newspaper, "powerful" doesn't mean the senator or the governor. "Powerful" means the president of the local bank (or regional manager of the national bank). "Powerful" means the biggest employer in the county, whether that's a college, or a car dealership, or Walmart. And writing something embarrassing about whoever that powerful entity is doesn't mean exposing yourself to prosecution or libel suit[1]; the problems you'd face don't for the most part involve the sanctioned use of public force. Instead, do you, like most humans, have any areas in your life you'd rather not have aired publicly? Do you drink more than is considered prudent? Have you recently stepped outside the socially accepted parameters of sexual behavior? Is there anything in your life that a little bit of connectivity analysis could hand your private enemies as a weapon?

And it gets much, much worse if you drop the "journalist" part of the just-so-story I've been telling, because journalists get professional kudos for making powerful people's lives miserable. Regular schmoes, on the other hand... don't. Regular schmoes find themselves fired and unable to find work in their field (if they have a field) or at all (if they do not have specialized skills) when what they do personally or professionally embarrasses the powerful, or cuts into their bottom line.

Seriously, Marc, I know that as a dedicated reader of the internet you have already thought through the difficult question of whether coercion from a private entity can exist, or whether definitionally only the state can coerce, but in case you haven't, we had a whole big symposium on it not that long ago.

TL/DR: Government is not the only one who can do harm, especially assuming access to broad tracking and associational data which only lightly hides information that, in the view of most people, should be stringently access-controlled rather than for sale to all private comers and available for free to the government upon request.

[1] I mean, sure, they might sue you, but at least you'd know you had the law on your side while you're being bankrupted by the costs of the case.

No comments:

Post a Comment