Daily Archives: 2013-07-15

Why privacy regulators are ineffective: an anthropologist's view

Privacy activists have complained for years that the Information Commissioner is useless, and compared him with captured regulators like the FSA and the Financial Ombudsman. However I’ve come across a paper by a well-known anthropologist that gives a different take on the problem.

Alan Fiske did fieldwork among a tribe in northern Nigeria that has different boundaries for which activities are regulated by communal sharing, authority, tit-for-tat or monetary exchange. For example,labour within the village is always communal; you expect your neighbours to help you fix your house, and you later help them fix theirs. (This exasperated colonialists who couldn’t get the locals to work for cash; the locals for their part imagined that Europeans must present their children with an itemised bill for child-rearing when they reached adulthood.) He has since written several papers on how many of the tensions in human society arise on the boundaries of these domains of sharing, authority, tit-for-tat and the market. The boundaries can vary by culture, by generation and by politics; libertarians are happy to buy and sell organs for transplant, where many people prefer communal sharing, while radical socialists object to some routine market transactions. Indeed regulatory preferences may drive political views.

So far so good. Where it gets interesting is his extensive discussion of taboo transactions across a variety of cultures, and the institutions created to mitigate the discomfort that people feel when something affects more than one sphere of regulation: from extreme cases such as selling a child into slavery so you can feed your other children, through bride-price and blood money, to such everyday things as alimony and deconsecrating a cemetery for development. It turns out there’s a hierarchy of spheres, with sharing generally taking precedence over authority and authority over tit-for-tat, and market pricing following along last. This ordering makes “downhill” transactions easier. Alimony works (you once loved me, so pay me money!) but buying love doesn’t. Continue reading Why privacy regulators are ineffective: an anthropologist's view