Corporate Privacy Redux

The Supreme Court of the USA has unanimously decided (pdf) that “corporations do not have “personal privacy” for the purposes of exemption 7(C) [of The Freedom of Information Act].”

This is a welcome decision which should set back further efforts by corporate bodies to claim ‘human rights’ as a justification for avoiding their responsibilities under laws mandating transparency and accountability.

Marc Rotenberg points us to a welcome for this decision from Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont.

Good news all round for once.

Corporate Privacy?

I’ve been arguing a lot recently that individual privacy, state secrecy and corporate confidentiality should be regarded as clearly separate things. Keeping this separation is important precisely because it stops organisations which we should expect to be open to inspection and accountable to us, from using ‘privacy’ as an excuse for avoiding such inspection. Philosophically, the distinction should be clear, but legally it may not be so obvious. One problem however lies in the nature of the whole notion of ‘incorporation’, which in its very language already assigns certain individual human attributes to organisations. And corporations are very much aware of this.

Marc Rotenberg points me to a very interesting legal test case in which the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) in the USA is currently involved. This case originally started when in 2008 the Federal Communications Commission ruled that corporations could not use ‘privacy’ as a reason to reject Freedom of Information requests. In 2009, a court overruled this decision. And now the FCC, ironically aided by EPIC, an organisation which frequently finds itself challenging rather than supporting the state on such issues, is seeking to have this ruling overturned in the Supreme Court.

This strikes me as a vital case, not just for the USA, for other jurisdictions where corporations will be observing the outcome and seeking to bring similar challenges if they can. If privacy, and indeed any other fundamental human right, is to mean anything it can neither be granted to companies who find it simply a convenient cover for a desire for confidentiality, nor to states who seek to maintain secrecy. Clearly there is information possessed by corporations and by states that might have elements that could be damaging to personal privacy. Private individuals acting in a corporate or state capacity may perhaps in some clearly delineated circumstances have the right not to be personally identified, even more so for individuals from outside the organisation concerned, but the ‘what’ of the information should still not, by association with an individual expressing a desire for privacy or anonymity, acquire the protection of privacy.

Two Weeks to Go for Bill C-32

Many people will still not be aware of the imminence of a new bill on copyright for Canada. Everything you need to know (and more) is on Michael Geist’s excellent site. The key thing is that, like most such bills around the world, this bill is still skewed towards industry perspectives and does not place much importance on the rights on the ordinary citizen or resident of Canada, in particular in the areas of ‘digital locks’ that prevent fair use of digital materials, and the lack of provision for copying across form factors for personal use. You have until the end of January to make your views heard.

New UK government to go ahead with old government plan on data retention

One of the many promises made by the new Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government was that it would “end the storage of internet and e-mail records without good reason.” The obvious flaw in this promise is that all the protection provided was only good so long as the government was unable to invent a ‘good reason.’

Now it appears according to The Guardian newspaper, that such a ‘good reason’ has been defined in the Strategic Defence and Security Review, to keep all web site visits, e-mail and phone calls made in the UK. And it is an old reason: basically, everything should be kept in case the police or intelligence services might find it useful in the prevention of a ‘terror-related crime’. Note: not actually terrorism, but terror-related, which is rather more vague and not so clearly defined in law, even given that ‘terrorism’ is already very broadly defined in the relevant laws.

This is pretty much exactly what the last Labour government were planning to do anyway with the proposed Communications Bill. Oh, and dont’t forget that the cost of this has been estimated at around 2Bn GBP ($3.5Bn) in a country that just announced ‘unavoidable’ welfare cuts of 7Bn GBP… that’s the reality of the ‘age of austerity’ for you’. It shows what David Gill argued in his book Policing Politics (1994) that the intelligence service constitute a ‘secret state’ that persists beyond the superficial front of the government of the day.

Support Peter Watts

I’ve been snowed under teaching recently and haven’t been posting much. One thing has really got my goat though and I think it needs wider attention. Those of you who read boingboing will already know, but the SF author, Peter Watts (who wrote the excellent novel of really alien contact, Blindsight) has been convicted of obstructing US border guards and could spend up to two years in prison. This is despite the fact that the border guards lied about the whole incident (they claimed he had tried to choke an officer, when in fact they were assaulting him, a fact admitted in court). He basically got convicted for challenged the guards and getting out of his car to ask what was going on. As Cory Doctorow comments on BoingBoing, this is not about security, this is not about safety, and it is not even about crime as we would recognise it, it is about authority and the massive increase in humourless abuse that has increased so much in recent years, particularly on the US border*. Peter Watts was convicted essentially of not responding fast enough and questioning commands. He’s now posted more on his own blog, including some comments from some of the jury, who couldn’t quite believe the outcome…

Anyone who thinks ‘nothing to hide, nothing to fear’ or truly believes that it couldn’t happen to you, read this a be concerned. Show your support for Peter too. Write to your congressmen if you are in the USA, or Members of Parliament in Canada, write to Ministers and Secretaries of State. Make a fuss. Write to Peter too and tell him you support him.

*And sure, there’s a context, but it seems to me that the post-9/11 situation is used as an excuse by rather too many guards to exercise a petty brutality on anyone who does not conform to their perception of normality. That critical point where liberty comes up against security is just as much about interpersonal encounters like this as it is about grand policy.