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Privacy, data, rights and a shootout

AS THE UK heads for the polls to decide its place in the European Union, a slew of headlines about the places where technology meets law and rights illustrate a fundamental part of the choice voters are making. Do they want to belong to a polity that takes for granted that individuals have rights, or to cut loose and sink or swim in the free market that is the unexamined orthodoxy of US political culture? Or, rather, these stories could illustrate that choice if it were not for the increasingly silly and strident ways stories about the EU are being told in the UK.

Take, first, the story of the Apple corporation facing off against the US Federal Bureau of Investigation. This looks at first like a dream of an easily-told plot: that of a cowboy film. We see just two protagonists, guns drawn on Main Street. The first twist is that the audience is divided over who's wearing the white hat. Is it the neatly-uniformed Sheriff, insisting that to keep citizens safe they must be able to read a phone connected to terrorism? Or is it the jeans-wearing gunslinger who warns that if the government can do that, then none of our secrets are safe from the bandits?

So those who take the story seriously are drawn into a world of ethics and politics with multiple shape-shifting protagonists. Here we find another pair of protagonists - in the policy battle between the European Union and United States over citizens' privacy. This is hard to write headlines about - but arguably that's how we know it is real, not Hollywood.

Help is at hand. Monica Horten is a Visiting Fellow at the London School of Economics and has served as an independent expert to the Council of Europe's committee on and internet freedom, so she can give an inside view. I have an interest to declare: I am writing this in Brussels, in between meetings with EU Commissioners.

In The Closing of the Web Horten clearly and accessibly sets out the lobbying shenanigans that influenced the EU's positions on "net neutrality", enforcement of copyright - and that battle over privacy. And how useful the EU is to UK government. It protested that it was demanding data on who talked to whom because "Brussels made us do it!" I grumbled: "but Whitehall wrote the Directive that forced Whitehall to do it" - which I detected purely from its drafting style. Horten gives pellucid chapter and verse.

You might hope for a balancing view from Scott Malcomson, a visiting media fellow at the US Carnegie Corporation. His Splinternet mourns the advent of "many cyberspaces" that "fit distressingly well onto the old political maps". It gives, however, a quaintly parochial history of the net, populated only by US innovators.

The most interesting thing about Malcomson's book is what's not there: he simply ignores the matter of protecting citizens against privacy breaches by corporations. Apple, after all, amasses personal data on its customers. Google's hoovering up of medical data is controversial. I have just heard EU Commissioner Andrus Ansip condemn Facebook for throwing its weight around to the detriment of creators such as musicians.

As Horten documents, the US government fights on behalf of these corporations to exclude them from EU data protection, declaring that the market is the only tool to make decisions. (What is the cash value of your medical privacy?) In debates in the EU this is always framed as a matter of human rights.

In The Boy who Could Change the World Aaron Swartz gives a brilliant account of the lobbying that achieves that US position. At 14 he helped develop "RSS", the data format that quite possibly brought you an online alert to this piece. He was active in software and policy development for 12 years. The best thing in this collection is a timely and witty guide to the mysteries that are US elections and governance.

Swartz came to civilians' attention when he killed himself while awaiting trial for mass downloading of research journal papers to give them away in protest at their high price.

Simplification will always tell a false story. As if to demonstrate this, law professor Lawrence Lessig muses in his introduction on the ethics of such a posthumous collection of writings. Lessig recalls Swartz objecting to him handing out an essay of his to a class. "But you posted it on your blog," Lessig responded: "Yes... for the people who read my blog. Not for the random student at Stanford Law School."

Swartz, like Lessig, opposed the power that copyright law gives to corporations, particularly journal publishers such as Relx (owner of New Scientist). But he cared about his right as an author to control how his own work was copied, which in the EU is framed as a human right and in the US as a matter merely for markets.

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Last modified: 13 Jun 2016 - © 2016 contributors
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