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.

It follows that the most toxic trade-offs for politicians to navigate are those that go the wrong way up the hierarchy: increasing the speed limit from 70 to 80 to improve economic efficiency, but at the cost of a few lives, is just too hard. So you obfuscate (ACPO guidelines say you ticket a driver when he exceeds the speed limit by 10%+2 mph; these have the same effect, but don’t seem to come from the minister). But even these are tricky; the road-safety pressure groups can always kick up a fuss as they don’t themselves ever expect to be in a position to have to take such decisions. Criticism is easy and natural.

But in parliaments where parties alternate in power, a growing trend is to create a “sanctuary” for the taboo trade-off to be conducted without the minister touching it. The courts are the oldest such, and in the USA they still do a wider range of things than here. In the UK, new governments set up quangos to give out jobs to their clients, and abolish their predecessor’s. But the issues dealt with by the ICO are maybe too toxic to become part of the spoils system, and the courts might be insufficiently pliable in the face of industry lobbying. Government would not like Facebook to come back to parliament every few years for a new Privacy Act!

So how should a “sanctuary” be run? Alan suggests it should have open consensual decision-making processes involving all the stakeholders, which should be invited to put forward solutions to the problem under consideration from each of the four viewpoints. Thus the organ-donation quango should openly discuss selling organs for cash; barring people who don’t carry a donor card from receiving an organ; making donation compulsory and allocating organs by social status; and appealing to our common humanity. Perhaps I’m old and cynical; but doesn’t that just replicate the social choice problem in a mini-parliament, the selection of whose members now becomes the effective decider? Imagine what it would be like if the ICO were replaced by a jury of three industry lobbyists, three privacy advocates and three retired politicians …

Anyway, I much enjoyed the anthropological viewpoint.

1 thought on “Why privacy regulators are ineffective: an anthropologist's view

  1. It seems crazy to me for people to be treating privacy like it’s some kind of objective measure. Everyone has different preferences on how and to what extent they would like their privacy respected. The extreme case on one end is the hermit who keeps their money under their mattress and keeps to themselves. The other extreme is a contestant in Big Brother who is happy for every move to be displayed to millions for a small chance of winning money.

    Everyone else in the world falls somewhere between those two extremes, but privacy advocates seem to be advocating for maximum privacy, rather than user’s privacy choices being respected. I guess it must be easier/safer to promote maximum privacy over privacy awareness but I fear this important point of privacy being inherently subjective is being lost somewhere along the line.

    Eg. Personally, I don’t care too much about facebook using my personal information and presenting me with ads that are relevant to my interests. I’m fully aware of what data they collect (as I am providing that data) and I knowingly consent to this collection and use. Others may hold a different view however and their views are just as important.

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