Wednesday, April 14, 2004

Legislative Stupidity on Display

I've just come across this CNET article on Gmail, the free mail service being proposed by Google, and I have to say that I find the privacy concerns being raised absolutely ridiculous; there really aren't any new issues here that those who make use of free web-based services like Hotmail and Yahoo!Mail shouldn't already be worried about. Who cares if some silly algorithm serves up an advertisement based on keywords in a message? I say this as one more concerned about privacy issues than most. The plain truth is that email messages are already automatically scanned for content, and it would be impossible to filter out viruses and spam if this were not so.

Still, what really gets on my nerves about this article isn't the fact that a bunch of technically ignorant people are making a big fuss about nothing, but that some of those ignoramuses are legislators, and eager to abuse the legislative powers bestowed on them by the electorate to enact laws to govern issues they don't have the slightest clue about. In particular,

Google's plans have drawn a sharp reaction from privacy advocates, who worry about potential abuses of a system that might allow the company to permanently store millions of e-mail messages and scan their content.

On Monday, Sen. Liz Figueroa, a Democrat from Fremont, Calif., said she was drafting legislation that would prevent Google or any other company from examining the content of e-mail in order to serve up ads.

Last week, Privacy International urged Britain's information commissioner to take action against the service, although that official appears to have backed away from taking a hard line for now.

What stupidity! It figures that Liz Figueroa would be a Democrat, what with the contempt she displays for free enterprise. Even if Gmail really were some unprecedentally intrusive email service (which it most certainly isn't), shouldn't it be up to individuals to decide for themselves whether or not they wish to make use of it? If I value my privacy a whole lot less than you do yours, what business of yours is it to forbid my taking up a service like Gmail? It isn't as if anyone's being forced at gunpoint to get a Gmail account.

I'll also add that the lobbying by "Privacy International" to get the British government to take action against a service that isn't even freely available to the public yet is one more example of an unaccountable NGO taking policy-making into its own hands. Why couldn't this organization simply have contented itself with warning the public against the adoption of Gmail? The assumption that NGOs are necessarily benign is one that stubbornly refuses to die, despite an abundance of evidence to the contrary.