Contracts, Privacy, and the Cloud

Did I mention something about non-negotiable ‘contracts’? Why, yes, I did (boldface mine):

When Web surfers sign up for a new online service or download a Web application for their smartphone or tablet, the service typically requires them to click a seemingly innocuous box and accept the company’s terms of service and privacy policy. But agreeing to terms without reading them beforehand can adversely affect a user’s legal rights, says a new paper by a University of Illinois expert in technology and legal issues.

Law professor Jay P. Kesan says the current “non-negotiable approach” to user privacy is in need of serious revision, especially with the increased popularity of Web-based software that shares information through cloud computing….

Their analysis shows that providers all take similar approaches to user privacy, in that providers were consistently more detailed when describing the user’s obligations to the provider than when describing the provider’s obligations to the user.

“It’s the provider who sets the terms, knows the terms inside and out, and ultimately benefits from the terms,” Kesan said. “But because these obligations are usually in the form of an ‘adhesion contract,’ and only one party has bargaining power, the consumer does not have the ability to counter with new terms, ones that could increase their benefits.”

Which leads us to something Mike Konczal recently wrote (boldface mine):

For liberals, basic rights are fundamental, in the sense that they can’t be compromised or traded against other, non-basic rights. They are also inalienable; I can’t contractually transfer away or otherwise give up my basic rights. To the extent that I enter contracts that do this, I have an option of exit that restores those rights…

When libertarians say they are for basic rights, what they are really saying is that they are for treating what liberals consider basic rights as property rights. Basic rights receive no more, or less, protection than other property rights. You can easily give them up or bargain them away, and thus alienate yourself from them. (Meanwhile, all property rights are entirely fundamental – they can never be regulated.)

How is that possible? Let’s cut to the chase: Nozick argues you can sell yourself into slavery, a condition under which all basic liberties are extinguished… The minimal libertarian state would be forced to acknowledge and enforce contracts that permanently alienate basic liberties, even if the person in question later wanted out, although the liberal state would not at any point acknowledge such a contract.

If the recession were so bad that millions of people started selling themselves into slavery, or entering contracts that required lifelong feudal oaths to employers and foregoing basic rights, in order to survive, this would raise no important liberty questions for the libertarian minimal state. If this new feudal order were set in such a way that it persisted across generations, again, no problem.

Once you give a private entity personal information, there’s no walking it back. There’s no Information Jubilee. Just something to keep in mind.

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3 Responses to Contracts, Privacy, and the Cloud

  1. dr2chase says:

    But we already knew that libertarians were amoral and/or clueless. Also, certain that they would be the ones owning the slaves, and not vice-versa. The Lake Wobegon Effect explains far too much human stupidity.

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