Information is a very powerful thing. Indeed, in the mind of Canadian activist Cory Doctorow it would seem as though it is perhaps the most dangerous weapon of all. Speaking to the Associated Press, he compares the compilation of data by private companies such as Google to the acts of government entities who allegedly use “giant databases” in order to restrict the civil liberties of both evil doers as well as unsuspecting citizens. The incendiary piece is successful in pointing out that a proper regulatory regime with respect to information gleaned from the internet has yet to be established and raises some valid concerns about how the inherent intellectual property rights are being ignored.
However, when Doctorow attempts to categorize the databases as “a major threat to freedom and privacy”, this comes across as either vague or sensationalist. While it is true that recording the online activities of users should be recognized as potentially problematic, it is foolish to disregard the many practical benefits it provides or to be scared off by the paranoid spectre of “illegitimate users”.
First of all, it is evident that Google collects a substantial amount of valuable information. It is a private enterprise that has the primary goal of producing wealth for its shareholders. What Doctorow underestimates is the fact that it would not be in the best interest of Google to foster an environment where it would become the main contributor in a conspiracy to undermine the freedoms of its customers. By cooperating with a government agency or any other group intent on harassing citizens, Google would risk loosing the goodwill and trust of users. Also, it is unlikely that advertisers (huge financial backers of Google) would wish to be associated with a company that operated in such a manner.
Presumably in response to the failure of internet companies to endorse a principled privacy framework, government regulations have been introduced. According to Doctorow, the ambivalence of Google “has only been checked by European regulators: American regulators have been powerless and not eager to intervene”. Furthermore, it is suggested that the US government would be keen to employ a company such as Google as a way of gaining increased control over the people (he mentions that American authorities already use credit rating information in a similar fashion). Inexplicably, Doctorow fails to mention the impact of Canadian legislation in this area. The Personal Information Protection and Electronic Documents Act (PIPEDA) protects against the unauthorized use of “information about an identifiable individual”. Thus, it would be illegal for an internet company to release such personal information unless doing so within one of the clearly defined exceptions (e.g. emergency situation). Furthermore, the Charter of Rights and Freedoms would limit the misuse of online information. On the other hand, the international structure of the internet makes it difficult for individual nations to regulate and easier for “illegitimate users” to exploit.
It is on the subject of illegitimate use that Doctorow tries hardest to persuade. He makes emotional statements about how intelligence agencies could use the guise of terrorism to trample the liberties of innocent people. Similarly, it is argued that everyone is vulnerable because of the information held by Google’s database and over the top comparisons are made to abuse of the United States Patriot Act, and even the use of personal records within Nazi Germany while carrying out persecutions. Quite frankly, these fears seem highly unrealistic as people control how they use the internet.
More importantly, online databases can be positively utilized in emergencies, investigations, and crime prevention. Currently, such resources are being used by Interpol to track notorious pedophile Christopher Paul Neil. It would be unreasonable to restrict such genuine uses of online material in an effort to combat the highly speculative dangers outlined by Cory Doctorow.