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Privacy pleas

Amitai Etzioni's "The Limits of Privacy" sees civil libertarians as a danger and government as the solution to all our problems.


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By Mike Godwin

April 26, 1999 | Whenever some would-be social reformer tells me that individual rights need to be balanced against the common good, I get nervous. And when someone argues that the civil libertarians and privacy advocates have, in their concern for privacy, constituted an active social harm, I get positively jittery.

Which is why Amitai Etzioni's book "The Limits of Privacy" has had me off coffee for a week.

It was a book I felt I had to read, since Etzioni has become an outspoken and prolific participant in the debates over privacy issues online. His newspaper articles over the past year have dealt with privacy on the Internet (Boston Globe, March 29, 1999), database privacy (New York Times, April 6, 1999) and Internet content regulation (Wall Street Journal, Oct. 14, 1998). Indeed, Etzioni's growing prominence on these issues is probably why he was a major source for a recent Times story about the privacy issues raised by tracing the Melissa virus' creator.

Even so, Etzioni's treatment of privacy issues in his new book came as an unpleasant surprise. The book is disturbing not just because Etzioni thinks of civil libertarians like me as harmful to the social order; it's also troubling because of his willingness to embrace just about every government initiative that would erode personal privacy -- so long as it can be justified in terms of a valid public concern.

Described in his press materials as "one of the world's leading proponents of communitarian thinking," Etzioni is a sociologist at George Washington University. But "The Limits of Privacy" is not sociology, nor does it rely on sociological methodologies -- instead, it is expressly a work of policy advocacy.

Officially, Etzioni wants to replace the rights talk in American policy and jurisprudence with a "balanced" philosophy of privacy. Unofficially, his book is aimed at discrediting those threatening civil libertarians and privacy activists and replacing them with Etzioni's "balanced" approach -- what he calls "a contemporary conception of privacy." If there's a hell in Etzioni's communitarian cosmology, it's the realm of discourse in which lawyers and civil libertarians win arguments by invoking individual rights.

Etzioni cheerfully acknowledges that he's no lawyer himself (he likes to drop the occasional aside about how irrational the legal system is), but he's certainly as tendentious as the most stereotypical litigator. And, like a lawyer quizzing a witness about the latter's decision to stop beating his wife, Etzioni knows that if you ask the right kinds of questions, the answers will invariably support your case: "To begin a new dialog about privacy, I have asked ... audiences if they would like to know whether the person entrusted with their child care is a convicted child molester." Well, yes, Amitai, I'd kinda like to know that. So I guess I should be willing to punt this privacy stuff, huh?

The author stacks the deck by beginning his book with discussions of two cherry-picked issues -- Megan's Law and the HIV testing of infants -- where the interest in protecting the health and welfare of children is indisputable, and where the countervailing privacy interests are comparatively weak. He moves on, however, to the trickier issues of government access to encrypted communications (where the government's case for guaranteed access is known to be rather weak, at least as far as actual evidence goes) and the institution of a national I.D. card (the case for which is typically framed less in terms of solving a known public problem and more in terms of providing a raft of public benefits).

The reader who works through Etzioni's discussions of these issues and thinks she's got the author pegged as an anti-privacy zealot like David Brin will find she's been thrown a curve by the chapter on medical records -- which Etzioni finds to be too easily subject to abuse by insurance companies and other monolithic villains of late capitalism. Medical privacy, says the author, "is in a fundamentally different condition than the other four areas of public policy studied here ... Privacy is unnecessarily compromised without serving any important public good."

This last is not exactly a controversial proposition in itself -- you can find a similar view in "The End of Privacy," a recent book by Canadian political-science professor Reg Whitaker. Like Etzioni, Whitaker sees a role for government in policing the excesses of commercial entities that might misuse our private data. But where the agenda of Whitaker's book is mildly Marxist -- his primary aim is to outline how technology and capitalism synergistically fuel changes in the privacy landscape -- the purpose of Etzioni's book is both simpler and more troubling: It seeks to justify the role of government in making privacy decisions, whatever those decisions may be.

Thus, when the issue is government-initiated privacy intrusions, Etzioni argues that privacy is overvalued when "balanced" against the public welfare. Yet when government might play a role in protecting privacy -- by, say, regulating private companies' use of commercial or medical databases -- suddenly Etzioni is nervous about the threat to privacy. He labels this particular conclusion "the Privacy Paradox": He believes that the greatest threat to privacy is not the state, which is traditionally seen (he says) as the greatest threat to our privacy, but Big Business, which you need the government to police.

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