Thursday, September 3, 2009 - The Progress & Freedom Foundation Blog

Privacy War II: A Historical Comparison, Not a Moral Equation

I noted yesterday that a coalition of self-styled "privacy advocates" chose Monday, September 1, to launch an all-out attack on online advertising--which happened to be 70 years to the day after the start of World War II. Since the term "Privacy War" has been used since the late 90s as a catch-all for the battle of ideas about whether and how to regulate online data collection (especially for advertising ), I found it noteworthy that a second round of the "Privacy Wars" had commenced on the anniversary of World War II.

The parallels are striking: Both World War I and Privacy War I (~95-2001) ended in settlements that left many combatants seething with the desire for revenge, followed by a period of rising tensions that ultimately erupted into another full-blown conflict. But most striking was the fact that World War II began with a bang (the German invasion of Poland) followed by eight months of inaction--the sitzkrieg or "sitting war"--before the Battle of France . I expect we are in precisely the same situation now in the Privacy Wars: a rhetorical "war" to be followed by awkward delay before the eventual introduction of legislation on the Hill. I also noted that:

What Churchill said of the debt owed by the British people to the heroic airmen of the RAF during the Battle of Britain could be said about online advertising over the last decade: "Never was so much owed by so many to so few." Never before has advertising done so much good for consumers in funding innovation and creativity on so broad a scale for so many. Yet never before has advertising been so reviled in Washington as now.

I bent over backwards to emphasize that, in noting these historical parallels, I was "not actually comparing the coalition to Hitler" and that such comparisons (the Reductio ad Hitlerium or Godwin's Law) are "surely the dirtiest rhetorical trick in the book." Despite this disclaimer, Jeff Chester, who has fought a personal war against advertising for over three decades, has has seized this opportunity to distract from the real issues at stake in this battle of ideas about the future of the Internet--just as he's repeatedly questioned the motives of those who challene him. So before Jeff uses this as a political/fundraising stunt by putting out a press release ascribing insensitivity to the Holocaust to those who question whether crippling online advertising would really be good for consumers, let me make this clear:

  1. Again, I did not mean to draw a moral equation between the critics of advertising to the Nazis, only to point out the historical parallels in how these conflicts unfolded.

  2. I certainly understand why any analogy to World War II is sensitive. My own great-grandfather was among the first to be rounded up and put in a concentration camp when Hitler took power. He survived, but left the camp a broken man, and the lives of my grandmother and, through her, my father were changed forever by the experience.

So, if my historical comparison or use of the alliterative title "Attack of the Anti-Advertising Axis" legitimately offended others who aren't just looking for an excuse to squelch dissent, I readily apologize. I'll be even more sorry if Chester succeeds in twisting this contrived controversy of political correctness to further his own radical agenda of promoting sweeping preemptive Internet regulation over the real solutions to concerns about online privacy: educating and empowering users to choose for themselves.

posted by Berin Szoka @ 1:27 PM | Advertising & Marketing , Privacy