clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Abandoning freedom for privacy

If you heard a rumbling noise last week, it was probably James Madison turning over in his grave.

Remembered as a champion of free speech and open public records among the Founding Fathers, he would hardly be amused at what the state's Information Technology Commission is considering. A draft bill that is receiving entirely too much serious attention would make it a crime in Utah to gather and report virtually all information of interest to a community.For example, if a convict escaped from prison, reporters could not provide a physical description to frightened neighbors. Injury reports at an athletic event would be prohibited, unless the athlete gave express permission to every media outlet in town. Anyone who opposed light rail, US WEST's rate increase or virtually anything else of interest would be prohibited from making those views known in a letter to the editor.

Oh yes, and forget about ever learning anything about the personal lives of political candidates - things such as their educational and employment histories or their views on particular subjects. The bill wouldn't distinguish between the privacy rights of private and public people.

George Orwell would be jealous. Even had he written a novel titled "1997," he probably couldn't have fictionalized a better model for state control of information.

What got this unfortunate movement going was a misguided concern over the loss of privacy in the information age. The commission was set in motion by an effort to allow electronic drivers' licenses , and then turned its attention to every perceived monster in the shadows.

Certainly, no one likes to be called by telemarketers or to for their consumer habits to be tracked invisibly by so-called "cookies" on the Internet - two items mentioned in earlier commission meetings. But is the inconvenience worth destroying a 200-year tradition of freedom and openness?

Had commission members studied the Constitution and the arguments leading up to its passage, they would have learned that information is essential to maintaining freedom. Once a government limits the ability to gather and disseminate vital information, it can begin abusing people freely without fear that anyone will pry into medical records or examine damaging background data.

The worst part of this draft bill is that it would be absolutely useless. Technology is advancing so fast no public official can swat it. If people want to guard against abuses, their only weapon is technology itself, plus a dose of common sense. Programs are available to keep Internet web sights from gathering personal information. For that matter, people concerned about making their consumer habits public don't have to swipe a Fresh Values card past a checker at a Smith's Food & Drug Center. Other choices are available.

Fortunately, Madison doesn't need to concern himself with matters such as these. That's because he and the other framers left a Constitution that protects against such silly bills.

The commission needn't bother modifying its proposal. It ought to abandon it all together.