Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Internet Governance and Privacy


Reproduced from the Harvard Law School newsletter, "The Filter" Where the following usage restrictions are posted in the footer of that newsletter, edited by Amanda Michel:

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*** Internet Governance and Privacy ***
By Berkman Fellow Wendy Seltzer

Ever since The New York Times broke the story in December that the U.S. government is wiretapping its citizens' communications without warrants, privacy has been in the spotlight. That light has illuminated our expectations of privacy in overseas telephone calls and emails. It has also reflected into still shadowy concerns about the amount of information that we scatter around us in other day-to-day activities of the electronic age. That concern hit its own flash point a few weeks later, when Google refused a wide-ranging government subpoena for records of searches performed through the company's service.

The privacy interests at stake in these two cases differ substantially. Government surveillance of private communications triggers fears about government power to punish political opponents, and of unchecked executive power when the administration bypasses procedural and judicial oversight. Although the FISA courts have granted almost every intercept request made of them, even that was too much of a hurdle to this government's hunger for information.

The Google subpoenas, by contrast, seem unlikely to reveal much private information. Yes, Google tracks much personally identifying information, but the government has said that was not part of its request, as it is not investigating individuals but assessing the effectiveness of content filters (to fight constitutional challenges to the Children's Online Protection Act). Nevertheless, the Google fight (and the news that Microsoft, AOL, and Yahoo! responded to similar subpoenas) has gotten wide play on the Internet. Is this because more people see themselves typing medical queries into Google than emailing friends in Afghanistan?

What both stories have in common is that the privacy risks come from entrusting communications to third parties. In the digital age, we need third-party telephone companies and ISPs to carry our phone calls and emails, and third-party search engines to help us make sense of the web's massed information. We should put corresponding pressure on those intermediaries to keep our information private. But in the face of government subpoenas and warrantless information requests, that will not be enough. We also need the courts to recognize what Google's users have clearly stated: our expectation of privacy does not end when we give information to third parties necessary to its communication — neither should the protections of the Fourth Amendment.


BLOGPOST: Wikipedia.de Controversy, Urs Gasser

BLOGPOST: "The Internet - Freedom or Privilege?" David Isenberg

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