Appropriate humility from Verizon over corporations’ role in stopping NSA surveillance

Geoffrey Manne —  24 September 2013

Like most libertarians I’m concerned about government abuse of power. Certainly the secrecy and seeming reach of the NSA’s information gathering programs is worrying. But we can’t and shouldn’t pretend like there are no countervailing concerns (as Gordon Crovitz points out). And we certainly shouldn’t allow the fervent ire of the most radical voices — those who view the issue solely from one side — to impel technology companies to take matters into their own hands. At least not yet.

Rather, the issue is inherently political. And while the political process is far from perfect, I’m almost as uncomfortable with the radical voices calling for corporations to “do something,” without evincing any nuanced understanding of the issues involved.

Frankly, I see this as of a piece with much of the privacy debate that points the finger at corporations for collecting data (and ignores the value of their collection of data) while identifying government use of the data they collect as the actual problem. Typically most of my cyber-libertarian friends are with me on this: If the problem is the government’s use of data, then attack that problem; don’t hamstring corporations and the benefits they confer on consumers for the sake of a problem that is not of their making and without regard to the enormous costs such a solution imposes.

Verizon, unlike just about every other technology company, seems to get this. In a recent speech, John Stratton, head of Verizon’s Enterprise Solutions unit, had this to say:

“This is not a question that will be answered by a telecom executive, this is not a question that will be answered by an IT executive. This is a question that must be answered by societies themselves.”

“I believe this is a bigger issue, and press releases and fizzy statements don’t get at the issue; it needs to be solved by society.

Stratton said that as a company, Verizon follows the law, and those laws are set by governments.

“The laws are not set by Verizon, they are set by the governments in which we operate. I think its important for us to recognise that we participate in debate, as citizens, but as a company I have obligations that I am going to follow.

I completely agree. There may be a problem, but before we deputize corporations in the service of even well-meaning activism, shouldn’t we address this as the political issue it is first?

I’ve been making a version of this point for a long time. As I said back in 2006:

I find it interesting that the “blame” for privacy incursions by the government is being laid at Google’s feet. Google isn’t doing the . . . incursioning, and we wouldn’t have to saddle Google with any costs of protection (perhaps even lessening functionality) if we just nipped the problem in the bud. Importantly, the implication here is that government should not have access to the information in question–a decision that sounds inherently political to me. I’m just a little surprised to hear anyone (other than me) saying that corporations should take it upon themselves to “fix” government policy by, in effect, destroying records.

But at the same time, it makes some sense to look to Google to ameliorate these costs. Google is, after all, responsive to market forces, and (once in a while) I’m sure markets respond to consumer preferences more quickly and effectively than politicians do. And if Google perceives that offering more protection for its customers can be more cheaply done by restraining the government than by curtailing its own practices, then Dan [Solove]’s suggestion that Google take the lead in lobbying for greater legislative protections of personal information may come to pass. Of course we’re still left with the problem of Google and not the politicians bearing the cost of their folly (if it is folly).

As I said then, there may be a role for tech companies to take the lead in lobbying for changes. And perhaps that’s what’s happening. But the impetus behind it — the implicit threats from civil liberties groups, the position that there can be no countervailing benefits from the government’s use of this data, the consistent view that corporations should be forced to deal with these political problems, and the predictable capitulation (and subsequent grandstanding, as Stratton calls it) by these companies is not the right way to go.

I applaud Verizon’s stance here. Perhaps as a society we should come out against some or all of the NSA’s programs. But ideological moralizing and corporate bludgeoning aren’t the way to get there.

Geoffrey Manne

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One response to Appropriate humility from Verizon over corporations’ role in stopping NSA surveillance

  1. 

    I agree in general, but I think (not know) that these corporations have been just a little to willing to profit from these activities and hide them from their customers. I think the question is whether they are using the Nuremberg Defense