We Didn’t Give Away Our Information–It Was Extorted From Us (The Death of Contracts)

In the discussion surrounding the NSA spying revelations, I’ve seen a few people mention how people have freely given away their personal information. For instance, David Sirota writes:

As I noted on CNN, when it comes to civil liberties, the Bill of Rights is all about constraining the power of the government to encroach on our freedoms. It does this because the founders recognized that the government isn’t just another institution in society — it isn’t, say, just a private bank or a polling firm. It is granted special powers (subpoena, warrants, etc.) that those other institutions don’t have — but it was granted those powers in exchange for that authority being properly constrained. When such constraints are removed, our liberties are inevitably restricted (this, by the way, is why Senator Obama sponsored legislation to outlaw what President Obama is now doing).

Belcher and other Obama officials likely know all this, but also know that the best way to at once defang the NSA scandal and normalize the government’s assault on civil liberties is to pretend it’s the same as any other company using data in the creepy ways we’ve all gotten accustomed to. It’s the old “nothing to see here, move along” trick.

Kevin Drum, in an otherwise excellent post:

Will the public finally rebel after learning about the latest way their government is keeping tabs on them? I doubt it. As near as I can tell, most of the public is willing to sell their innermost secrets for a free iTunes coupon. Until we figure out a way to change that, none of this stuff is going to stop.

This really bothers me. Yes, there are people who will give away their information at the drop of a hat for a ten percent-off coupon. But many of us have no choice in the matter. When you sign the terms of agreement for an internet provider, credit card company, or many other businesses, you are offered a take-it-or-leave-it contract. No negotiation is possible. And these contracts are often for nearly-essential services. Sure, you don’t need a credit card, an internet connection, or an email account, but it’s hard to function in 21st century America without these things.

These are often de facto monopolies (e.g., cable companies), or else you are offered a very limited number of options that really don’t differ that much (e.g., wireless providers). In a common law sense (and the last thirty years of neoliberal and conservative jurisprudence have essentially annihilated the notion of common law), a contract that you can’t negotiate for a service you basically can’t do without isn’t really a contract, it’s extortion. Worse, this unequal (one might use the word servile) relationship is often sanctioned by the government.

In other words, for many us, this information extraction has been against our will, without any real alternatives. This is simply another form of tyranny. Liberals, both classic and modern, should recognize this, and not accept this frame.

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2 Responses to We Didn’t Give Away Our Information–It Was Extorted From Us (The Death of Contracts)

  1. Pingback: Contracts, Privacy, and the Cloud | Mike the Mad Biologist

  2. Pingback: Did I Miss the Discussion About Constant Surveillance? | Mike the Mad Biologist

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