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Rethinking the Net

While privacy is an important and enduring right, even in the Information Age, it's a right that must be balanced against accountability, not profitability.

In the wake of the Fornigate scandal, Hillary Clinton last week said it's time to "rethink" the Net, to "balance" competing values. It is, and in more ways than one.

Pointing to the Net as a source of lies about her husband, Mrs. Clinton bemoaned the lack of "gatekeepers" to screen out the scurrilous. "There used to be this old saying that the lie can be halfway around the world before the truth gets its boots on," Mrs. Clinton was quoted in a Reuters report. "Well, today, the lie can be twice around the world before the truth gets out of bed to find its boots."

If Mrs. Clinton quakes at the thought of Matt Drudge guarding her husband's honor, then she should be equally horrified that the president has appointed the insurance industry as the guardians of our health data. She should shiver knowing that the information industry has been knighted lords of the mundane details of our lives. And she should be struck speechless by the copyright industries cooption of academic freedom as well as legal and medical research.

Don't get me wrong. I am an outspoken admirer of Mrs. Clinton. Her personal strength, her savvy, her political convictions, and her work are examples to all young women. I agree with her that the values of Net are unbalanced, however, it's no fluke that they list towards expediency.

While mouthing the commitment to "balance," her husband's administration has given over nearly all protection of our privacy to "voluntary" measures from private industry. He's not alone in doing this. The Congress, by its very silence, is complicit.

It would seem the U.S. government lives in fear that the slightest concession to individual rights--the tiniest federal curb--might kill the goose that will lay the golden egg. So its moves are timid, its protections half-hearted and ineffective. Industry lobbyists have done their jobs well with scary stories of economic ruin that will be visited upon the U.S. economy should they be held to any measure of accountability.

Privacy is an important and enduring right, even in the Information Age, but it's a right that must be balanced against accountability, not profitability.

It's a measure that's already being used by the European Union. The member nations of the EU this year will enact privacy regulation that spells out clearly how personal information may be used, stored, and retrieved electronically, over the Net and otherwise. It also offers basic rights to its citizens on knowing what's stored along with correcting and erasing that information.

With private industry as the gatekeepers to our data, citizens of the United States and other countries will suffer as much or more than have the Clintons. Some of us will lose our careers because of misused medical data; some of us will lose even our lives, because repressive regimes use technology to monitor our phone calls, email messages, and movements.

As long as profitability, not accountability, is the competing value against which we balance the rights of individuals, then Mrs. Clinton, and the rest of us, can only expect more of the same.

Margie Wylie writes about the angst of the Information Age on Wednesdays in Perspectives.