Saturday, January 18, 2014

Privacy Rights: Obama's Last Big Moment

Throughout his Presidency, Barack Obama seems to have been on a quest for greatness, something that would mark him as an exceptional President.  He apparently isn't satisfied with being the first African American President, which is understandable.  We all want to be judged as individuals, not as an ethnicity or a race.  He tried to construct a program for federal stimulus for economic recovery, but got tangled up in the politics of government borrowing. He failed to achieve a grand bargain on the federal budget (which was a misguided tilt with a windmill from the get go). He managed, after almost failing, to get national health insurance legislation passed.  But then he and his administration thoroughly botched the launch.  His foreign policy accomplishments--getting us out of Iraq, and moving forward with withdrawal from Afghanistan--have been under-appreciated.  Ending a war without a clear victory isn't seen as a mark of greatness, even if it is the right thing to do.  And the prospects for anything really positive to happen with Iran, North Korea, Israel and the Palestinians, and the war on terror are problematic, at best.

But Obama now has a really big opportunity to achieve greatness.  Edward Snowden's revelations about the NSA have blown wide open the increasingly pressing issue of privacy.  With the Internet now ubiquitous, privacy is the most important civil liberties issue in the world.  In a democratic nation, the relationship of citizens to their government is the essential dynamic.  The process of electing the government, the notion of a government of limited powers defined in a national charter, the rights of individuals to speak out, worship, assemble, petition the government for redress of grievances, and publish, the protection of individual rights by an independent judiciary, the limitation of the government's authority to investigate (allowing search and seizure, wiretaps and other intrusions into the lives of citizens only with the approval of a court), and, at least in America, the right to keep and bear arms, all work to establish the individual citizen as the foundational component of society.  The government is supposed to be of the people, by the people and for the people.  The people aren't supposed to be subservient to the government.

With the recent disclosures of the NSA's seemingly insatiable appetite for, it would seem, every piece of information about everyone, citizens are threatened with a reversal of their relationship to their government.  The government's interests seem to take precedent over the individual's historic right to be left alone in the absence of clear and demonstrable need for government intrusion.  We won't have a government of limited power if the government knows everything there is to know about you.  Democracy as we have historically understood the term would cease to exist.

Obama today made a speech, promising to rein in the NSA, and more strongly safeguard the privacy of Americans (and also some foreigners).  His proposals are rather general, and, when it comes to privacy, the devil is decidedly in the details.  When the details come out, we'll find out how much of a change he is really proposing.  The privacy issue may well be Barack Obama's last chance to achieve greatness as a President.  If he succeeds in upholding primacy of the individual citizen, he will be remembered well for decades and even centuries to come.

And while he's at it, he might as well tackle the problem of individual's rights against the Internet giants.  The relationship of individuals, as consumers and workers, to giant corporations has been one of the great commercial and employment law problems of the industrialized world.  Without strong protections for those buying the products and services of the titans of the economies, and those working for them, the raw economic power of these gargantuan organizations would leave individuals helpless to be victimized early and often.  The Internet giants threaten to abscond with the privacy of all Internet users, and attain vast informational power over them.  Just as GM, Ford, Chrysler and the other automotive manufacturers weren't allowed to sell dangerous products to consumers without legal liability for product defects, the Internet giants shouldn't be allowed to treat Internet users as sheep to be fleeced in order to boost ad revenues and executive bonuses.  A Presidential initiative to significantly protect online privacy would bolster Obama's chances for greatness.

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