Tag: Security

Tuesday Links

  • Why Congress should not renew the PATRIOT Act’s “lone wolf” provision.
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On What Larger Theory Is Neoconservatism Based?

There have been some interesting writings coming out of AEI’s new Center for Defense Studies recently.  On Friday, Daniel Blumenthal offered some thoughts on China.  In the course of making the case that Chinese leaders should realize that we are not trying to contain China, he wrote the following:

Blumenthal- Daniel-150If countries acted in accordance with rational actor theories of political science, the Chinese would be pretty well assured that we are not going to contain it. We have made clear across administrations that we welcome China’s rise as a great power and urge it to act as a responsible one.

But countries do not act in accordance with political science theories.

Later in the piece, he wrote the following:

China is not the only country that is rising. So is India. But we do not worry about India’s rise. That is because India is a democracy. Almost everything it does is transparent to us.   We share liberal values with India, including the desire to strengthen the post-World War II liberal international order of open trade and investment and the general desire among democracies to settle internal and external disputes peacefully and democratically. The fact that China is not a democracy matters greatly as it rises. It makes its rise more disruptive as countries have to divine its intentions and observe the gap between its rhetorical policy of a “Peaceful Rise” and some of its actions that are inconsistent with a peaceful rise.

He closed thusly:

Wouldn’t it be nice if China got on board with all the post-modern, feel-good notions about international politics put forth by the Obama Administration? In the 21st century, says the Obama team, all countries have common interests in confronting transnational issues like climate change and proliferation. Sorry guys, those who lead China think 21st century international politics will look more or less like it did in the past. They favor good old fashioned power politics. Unfortunately for Obama, that forces us to do the same.

There’s an awful lot of interesting stuff going on here.  First, Blumenthal’s claim that “countries do not act in accordance with political science theories” is strangely incoherent.  As his second and third quotes above make clear, Blumenthal has a political science theory–two actually.

With respect to India, the theory he is expounding is called “liberalism” in IR jargon.  This theory places the causes of war at the so-called “second image” level: wars occur because some states are bad and their badness causes them to do bad things.  India being a good (democratic) state means we should be friends with it.  (There is another variant of liberalism that centers on international institutions, which is mostly but sometimes not bound up with the democracy-focused version.)

In the latter paragraph about China, Blumenthal looks like he’s dropped liberalism and glommed onto traditional balance-of-power realism: that is, as a state’s power grows it wants more influence at the international level; positions in the balance of power change in a zero-sum fashion; as China grows richer it will seek a larger security role and we will not want to afford it such a role.  “Good old fashioned power politics,” as Blumenthal calls it.

What’s most curious is Blumenthal’s seeming desire to dismiss the very idea of political science theories.  My colleague Ben Friedman has dealt with this concept before, noting

efforts to weigh the costs of war inevitably involve theories of how the world works. As my Professor Steve Van Evera likes to point out, foreign policy makers can use good or bad theories to guide their actions, but if they attempt the slightest foresight, they cannot have none. In other words, there is no such thing as foreign policy without foreign policy theory.

That is, without a theory about how the world works, we would be simply paralyzed by the prospect of issuing advice on foreign policy.

Today, Gary Schmitt at AEI wrote the following in criticizing Andrew Bacevich:

the real, underlying point of not only this particular piece but his views more generally is one connected to his own particular brand of conservative Catholicism.  For Bacevich, the U.S. is too secular, too trade happy, too materialist. (”The exploitation of women” referred in his article is not, as presumably the Post editors thought, about “equal pay for equal work” but more likely about the sexual objectification of women.)  You see, America is really a nation of imperfect men, marked by original sin, who have no right to take the lead globally.  Our real concern should be with our own failings-not American preeminence.

Taking his lead from Reinhold Niebuhr, Bacevich believes we are on an utopian mission to remake the world–or, in this instance, the Muslim world; it is a program that is immoral both because it is impossible (and hence counterproductive) given human nature and because, in pursuing it, we adopt policies that chip away at our own morality.  (The ends begin to justify the means, etc, etc.)  The more limited our ambitions in Bacevich’s view, the less damage we do to ourselves and others.

All of which contains a kernel of truth–but only a kernel.  Whatever problems we face domestically, it is just an historical fact that a broader American vision abroad has typically made us a better people at home.  Nor is there any evidence that a less expansive (and hence less expensive) foreign and defense policy would free up monies that miraculously would solve a problem like poverty or second-rate schools.  To the contrary, more government funds could well confound finding the policies that would actually help alleviate those problems. However, the larger point is that Bacevich and other conservative critics, like George Will, are standing on unsound ground when they argue that the transformative goal of the Long War is utopian.  It might be long and it might be difficult but, if anything, the evidence so far suggests that the establishment of decent democratic regimes is possible in all kinds of regions and in countries with diverse cultural histories.  That hardly means that failure in the Long War isn’t possible; but to hear Bacevich and others tell it, is inevitable. (emphasis mine)

The italicized portion above is just bizarre.  In Schmitt’s reading, spending tax dollars on welfare or education “could well confound finding the policies that would actually help alleviate those problems.”  This is a fairly straightforward conservative argument.  What’s strange is that Schmitt makes the argument that while the U.S. government likely could not figure out how to improve education or the general welfare in the United States, it can parachute into faraway countries and improve the governance over there.  Or it at least ought to try, since “a broader American vision abroad has typically made us a better people at home.” This is, to my mind, utterly, profoundly incoherent.  I think the most important point is that we ought not to send our military overseas to kill and die so that we can be “a better people at home.”  But I wonder how Schmitt’s view fits into the argument made by Brian Schmidt and Michael Williams in this article.  For Schmidt and Williams, neoconservative views on foreign policy are merely an extension of their domestic policy.  To wit:

A social order based purely on narrowly egoistic interests, neoconservatives argue, is unlikely to survive–and the closer one comes to it, the less liveable and sustainable society will become.  Unable to generate a compelling vision of the collective public interest, such a society would be incapable of maintaining itself internally or defending itself externally.  As a consequence, neoconservatism regards the ideas at the core of many forms of modern political and economic rationalism–that such a vision of interest can be the foundation for social order–as both wrong and dangerous.  It is wrong because all functioning polities require some sense of shared values and common vision of the public interest in order to maintain themselves.  It is dangerous because a purely egoistic conception of interest may actually contribute to the erosion of this sense of the public interest, and the individual habits of social virtue and commitment to common values that sustain it.

I am reminded of Irving Kristol’s statement that “A nation whose politics turn on the cost of false teeth is a nation whose politics are squalid.” It’s something of a parlor game in IR to debate whether neoconservatism is its own IR theory; whether it’s a theory at all, of anything; whether it’s really just liberalism; et cetera, but what would be really good to have is a clear statement that could be scrutinized on its own merit.  Until then one is left guessing or, at best, turning up weird conspiracy theories about Leo Strauss and the University of Chicago on the internet.

Bagram, Habeas, and the Rule of Law

Andrew C. McCarthy has an article up  at National Review criticizing a recent decision by Obama administration officials to improve the detention procedures in Bagram, Afghanistan.

McCarthy calls the decision an example of pandering to a “despotic” judiciary that is imposing its will on a war that should be run by the political branches. McCarthy’s essay is factually misleading, ignores the history of wartime detention in counterterrorism and counterinsurgency, and encourages the President to ignore national security decisions coming out of the federal courts.

More details after the jump.

McCarthy is Factually Misleading

McCarthy begins by criticizing a decision by District Judge John Bates to allow three detainees in Bagram, Afghanistan, to file habeas corpus petitions testing the legitimacy of their continued detention. McCarthy would have you believe that this is wrong because they are held in a combat zone and that they have already received an extraordinary amount of process by wartime detention standards. He is a bit off on both accounts.

First, this is not an instance where legal privileges are “extended to America’s enemies in Afghanistan.” The petition from Bagram originally had four plaintiffs, none of whom were captured in Afghanistan – they were taken into custody elsewhere and moved to Bagram, which is quite a different matter than a Taliban foot soldier taken into custody after an attack on an American base. As Judge Bates says in his decision, “It is one thing to detain t

hose captured on the surrounding battlefield at a place like Bagram, which [government attorneys] correctly maintain is in a theater of war. It is quite another thing to apprehend people in foreign countries – far from any Afghan battlefield – and then bring them to a theater of war, where the Constitution arguably may not reach.”

Judge Bates also took into account the political considerations of hearing a petition from Haji Wazir, an Afghan man detained in Dubai and then

moved to Bagram. Because of the diplomatic implications of ruling on an Afghan who is on Afghan soil, Bates dismissed Wazir’s petition. So much for judicial “despotism” and judicial interference on the battlefield, unless you define the world as your battlefield.

Second, the detainees have not been given very much process. Their detentions have been approved in “Unlawful Enemy Combatant Review Boards.” Detainees in these proceedings have no American representative, are not present at the hearings, and submit a written statement as to why they should be released without any knowledge of what factual basis the government is using to justify their detention. This is far less than the Combatant Status Review Tribunal procedures held insufficient in the Supreme Court’s Boumediene ruling.

Yes, Fix Detention in Afghanistan

McCarthy then chides the Obama administration for trying to get ahead of the courts by affording more process to detainees: “See, we can give the enemy more rights without a judge ordering us to do so!”

Well, yes. We should fix the detention procedures used in Afghanistan to provide the adequate “habeas substitute” required by Boumediene so that courts either: (1) don’t see a need to intervene; or (2) when they do review detention, they ratify the military’s decision more often than not.

Thing is, the only substitute for habeas is habeas. Habeas demands a hearing, with a judge, with counsel for both the detainee and the government, and a weighing of evidence and intelligence that a federal court will take seriously. If the military does this itself, then the success rate in both detaining the right people and sustaining detention decisions upon review are improved.

This is nothing new or unprecedented. Salim Hamdan, Usama Bin Laden’s driver, received such a hearing prior to his military commission. The CSRT procedures that the Bagram detainees are now going to face were insufficient to subject Hamdan to a military commission, so Navy Captain Keith Allred granted Hamdan’s motion for a hearing under Article V of the Geneva Conventions to determine his legal status.

Allred found that Hamdan’s service to Al Qaeda as Osama Bin Laden’s driver and occasional bodyguard, pledge of bayat (allegiance) to Bin Laden, training in a terrorist camp, and transport of weapons for Al Qaeda and affiliated forces supported finding him an enemy combatant. Hamdan was captured at a roadblock with two surface-to-air missiles in the back of his vehicle. The Taliban had no air force; the only planes in the sky were American. Hamdan was driving toward Kandahar, where Taliban and American forces were engaged in a major battle. The officer that took Hamdan into custody took pictures of the missiles in Hamdan’s vehicle before destroying them.

Hamdan’s past association with the Ansars (supporters), a regularized fighting unit under the Taliban, did not make him a lawful combatant. Though the Ansars wore uniforms and bore their arms openly, Hamdan was taken into custody in civilian clothes and had no distinctive uniform or insignia. Based on his “direct participation in hostilities” and lack of actions to make him a lawful combatant, Captain Allred found that Hamdan was an unlawful enemy combatant.

Hamdan’s Article V hearing should be the template for battlefield detention. Charles “Cully” Stimson at the Heritage Foundation, a judge in the Navy JAG reserves and former Bush administration detainee affairs official, wrote a proposal to do exactly that, Holding Terrorists Accountable: A Lawful Detention Framework for the Long War.

The more we legitimize and regularize these decisions, the better off we are. Military judges should be writing decisions on detention and publishing declassified versions in military law reporters. One of the great tragedies of litigating the detainees from the early days in Afghanistan is that a number were simply handed to us by the Northern Alliance with little to no proof and plenty of financial motive for false positives. My friends in the service tell me that we are still running quite a catch-and-release program in Afghanistan. I attribute this to arguing over dumb cases from the beginning of the war when we had little cultural awareness and a far less sophisticated intelligence apparatus. Detention has become a dirty word. By not establishing a durable legal regime for military detention, we created lawfare fodder for our enemies and made it politically costly to detain captured fighters.

The Long-Term Picture

McCarthy, along with too many on the Right, is fixated on maintaining executive detention without legal recourse as our go-to policy for incapacitating terrorists and insurgents. In the long run we need to downshift our conflicts from warmaking to law enforcement, and at some point detention transitions to trial and conviction.

McCarthy might blast me for using the “rule of law” approach that he associates with the Left and pre-9/11 counterterrorism efforts. Which is fine, since, just as federal judges “have no institutional competence in the conduct of war,” neither do former federal prosecutors.

Counterterrorism and counterinsurgency are not pursued solely by military or law enforcement means. We should use both. The military is a tool of necessity, but in the long run, the law is our most effective weapon.

History dictates an approach that uses military force as a means to re-impose order and the law to enforce it. The United States did this in Iraq, separating hard core foreign fighters from local flunkies and conducting counterinsurgency inside its own detention facilities. The guys who were shooting at Americans for a quick buck were given some job training and signed over to a relative who assumed legal responsibility for the detainee’s oath not to take up arms again. We moved detainees who could be connected to specific crimes into the Iraqi Central Criminal Court for prosecution. We did all of this under the Law and Order Task Force, establishing Iraqi criminal law as the law of the land.

We did the same in Vietnam, establishing joint boards with the Vietnamese to triage detainees into Prisoner of War, unlawful combatant, criminal defendant, and rehabilitation categories.

The Washington Post article on our detention reforms in Afghanistan indicates that we are following a pattern similar to past conflicts. How this is a novel and dangerous course of action escapes me.

Who’s the Despot Here?

McCarthy points to FDR as a model for our actions in this conflict between the Executive and Judiciary branches. He says that the President should ignore the judgments of the courts in the realm of national security and their “despotic” decrees. I do not think this word means what he thinks it means.

FDR was the despot in this chapter of American history, threatening to pack the Supreme Court unless they adopted an expansive view of federal economic regulatory power. The effects of an expansive reading of the Commerce Clause are felt today in an upending of the balance of power that the Founders envisioned between the states and the federal government.

McCarthy does not seem bothered by other historical events involving the President’s powers as Commander-in-Chief in the realm of national security. The Supreme Court has rightly held that the President’s war powers do not extend to breaking strikes at domestic factories when Congress declined to do so during the Korean War, trying American citizens by military commission in places where the federal courts are still open and functioning, and declaring the application of martial law to civilians unconstitutional while World War II was under way.

The Constitution establishes the Judiciary as a check on the majoritarian desires of the Legislature and the actions of the Executive, even during wartime. To think otherwise is willful blindness.

Another Day, Another Tranche of Afghanistan Reading Material

Item: The Coalition for a Realistic Foreign Policy, a group of concerned scholars and authors who work on international security and U.S. foreign policy, have issued an open letter to President Obama warning him not to expand U.S. involvement in that country.  (Full disclosure: I was a signatory.)  The list of signatories includes many of the scholars who urged President Bush not to invade Iraq.  Politico was the first to run the story: see here.

Item: Via Michael Cohen, former CIA counterterrorism honcho Paul Pillar takes to the pages of the Washington Post to think through the concept of “safe havens” in Afghanistan.  His conclusion?

Among the many parallels being offered between Afghanistan and the Vietnam War, one of the most disturbing concerns inadequate examination of core assumptions. The Johnson administration was just as meticulous as the Obama administration is being in examining counterinsurgent strategies and the forces required to execute them. But most American discourse about Vietnam in the early and mid-1960s took for granted the key – and flawed – assumptions underlying the whole effort: that a loss of Vietnam would mean that other Asian countries would fall like dominoes to communism, and that a retreat from the commitment to Vietnam would gravely harm U.S. credibility.

The Obama administration and other participants in the debate about expanding the counterinsurgency effort in Afghanistan can still avoid comparable error. But this would require not merely invoking Sept. 11 and taking for granted that a haven in Afghanistan would mean the difference between repeating and not repeating that horror. It would instead mean presenting a convincing case about how such a haven would significantly increase the terrorist danger to the United States. That case has not yet been made.

Item: Michael Crowley offers a piece in the New Republic that strongly implies but doesn’t quite come out and say that President Obama should ignore the skeptics and the political risks and wade deeper into Afghanistan.  The piece swallows whole the conventional wisdom narrative on Iraq–that the Surge amounted not to a combination of defining down “victory” and appeasement of Sunni tribes but rather a borderline miracle whereby Gen. Petraeus loosed his wonder-working COIN doctrine on the maelstrom of violence in that country and produced a strategic victory.  Crowley then uses this narrative to frame the decision before President Obama.  Still, he writes

[I]f the definition of success isn’t clear to the Obama team, the definition of defeat may be. Bush argued unabashedly that Iraq had become “the central front in the war on terror” and that withdrawing before the country had stabilized would hand Al Qaeda not only a strategic but a moral victory. Current administration officials don’t publicly articulate the same rationale when discussing Afghanistan. But former CIA official Bruce Riedel, a regional expert who led the White House’s Afghanistan-Pakistan review earlier this year, cited it at the Brookings panel held in August. “The triumph of jihadism or the jihadism of Al Qaeda and the Taliban in driving NATO out of Afghanistan would resonate throughout the Islamic World. This would be a victory on par with the destruction of the Soviet Union in the 1990s,” Riedel said. “[T]he stakes are enormous.”

Obama may have one last thing in common with Bush: personal pride. Bush was determined to prevail in Iraq because he had invaded it. And, while Obama, of course, had nothing to do with the invasion of Afghanistan, he has long supported the campaign there–including during the presidential campaign as a foil for his opposition to the Iraq war. Speaking before a group of veterans last month, Obama called Afghanistan a “war of necessity”–a phrase which politically invests him deeper in the fight. “The president has boxed himself in,” says one person who has advised the administration on military strategy. “The worst possible place to be is that our justification for being in a war is that we’re in a war.”

Lots to chew on.

The Coast Guard Kerfuffle: Normalcy Breeds Overreaction

Terrorists are weak actors who use violence to induce overreaction on the part of their stronger victims. That lesson was on display today when someone overhearing radio traffic from a routine Potomac River Coast Guard exercise misinterpreted it and alerted the media. Among the results was a 20-minute grounding of planes at Reagan Airport.

The good news is that the country is relatively safe. Americans and the national security establishment are tuned to the threat of terrorism. No attack to rival 9/11 ever occurred, and it’s unlikely that one ever will.

But the 9/11 attacks had a dastardly effect. To match the results of those attacks, we imagined that terrorists had outsized technical skills, support networks, and insights. Vigilance and continued antiterror efforts will ensure that they never do.

The bad news is that the government has never issued any reassuring signals. American society remains on edge and predisposed to overreact when something happens and — in this case — when nothing happened. The “scare” produced by the Coast Guard exercise illustrates how sensitive the country remains to terror fears.

Despite improved rhetoric and the promise of sensible, strategic counterterrorism, the Obama administration has yet to give the country confidence in its security. It has not articulated its counterterrorism plan and it has not created or implemented a terrorism communications plan. Unlike health care and education, these are responsibilities of the federal chief executive.

Without a strategy and communications plan in place, the administration will be at a loss to keep the nation on an even keel if and when any real terror incident occurs. The Obama administration must plan, and must be seen as having planned, if it is to prevent any future terrorism event from needlessly harming the country with panicky overreaction.

Based on what I’ve read, I see no fault in what the Coast Guard did, and I hope their review of the incident produces no changes in their procedures other than perhaps better preparation to quell overreaction.

Sticking Around Afghanistan Forever?

I’ll confess one of the arguments that I’ve never understood is the claim that the U.S. “abandoned” Afghanistan after aiding the Mujahadeen in the latter’s battle against the Soviet Union.  Yet Secretary of Defense Robert Gates apparently is the latest proponent of this view.

Reports the Washington Post:

Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said in an interview broadcast this week that the United States would not repeat the mistake of abandoning Afghanistan, vowing that “both Afghanistan and Pakistan can count on us for the long term.”

Just what does he believe we should have done?  Obviously, the Afghans didn’t want us to try to govern them.  Any attempt to impose a regime on them through Kabul would have met the same resistance that defeated the Soviets.  Backing a favored warlord or two would have just involved America in the ensuing conflict. 

Nor would carpet-bombing Afghanistan with dollar bills starting in 1989 after the Soviets withdrew have led to enlightened, liberal Western governance and social transformation.  Humanitarian aid sounds good, but as we’ve (re)discovered recently, building schools doesn’t get you far if there’s little or no security and kids are afraid to attend.  And a half century of foreign experience has demonstrated that recipients almost always take the money and do what they want – principally maintaining power by rewarding friends and punishing enemies.  The likelihood of the U.S doing any better in tribal Afghanistan as its varied peoples shifted from resisting outsiders to fighting each other is a fantasy.

The best thing the U.S. government could do for the long-term is get out of the way.  Washington has eliminated al-Qaeda as an effective transnational terrorist force.  The U.S. should leave nation-building to others, namely the Afghans and Pakistanis.  Only Afghanistan and Pakistan can confront the overwhelming challenges facing both nations.

Picture Don Draper Stamping on a Human Face, Forever

Last week, a coalition of 10 privacy and consumer groups sent letters to Congress advocating legislation to regulate behavioral tracking and advertising, a phrase that actually describes a broad range of practices used by online marketers to monitor and profile Web users for the purpose of delivering targeted ads. While several friends at the Tech Liberation Front have already weighed in on the proposal in broad terms – in a nutshell: they don’t like it – I think it’s worth taking a look at some of the specific concerns raised and remedies proposed. Some of the former strike me as being more serious than the TLF folks allow, but many of the latter seem conspicuously ill-tailored to their ends.

First, while it’s certainly true that there are privacy advocates who seem incapable of grasping that not all rational people place an equally high premium on anonymity, it strikes me as unduly dismissive to suggest, as Berin Szoka does, that it’s inherently elitist or condescending to question whether most users are making informed choices about their privacy. If you’re a reasonably tech-savvy reader, you probably know something about conventional browser cookies, how they can be used by advertisers to create a trail of your travels across the Internet, and how you can limit this.  But how much do you know about Flash cookies? Did you know about the old CSS hack I can use to infer the contents of your browser history even without tracking cookies? And that’s without getting really tricksy. If you knew all those things, congratulations, you’re an enormous geek too – but normal people don’t.  And indeed, polls suggest that people generally hold a variety of false beliefs about common online commercial privacy practices.  Proof, you might say, that people just don’t care that much about privacy or they’d be attending more scrupulously to Web privacy policies – except this turns out to impose a significant economic cost in itself.

The truth is, if we were dealing with a frictionless Coaseian market of fully-informed users, regulation would not be necessary, but it would not be especially harmful either, because users who currently allow themselves to be tracked would all gladly opt in. In the real world, though, behavioral economics suggests that defaults matter quite a lot: Making informed privacy choices can be costly, and while an opt-out regime will probably yield tracking of some who would prefer not to be under conditions of full information and frictionless choice, an opt-in regime will likely prevent tracking of folks who don’t object to tracking. And preventing that tracking also has real social costs, as Berin and Adam Thierer have taken pains to point out. In particular, it merits emphasis that behavioral advertising is regarded by many as providing a viable business model for online journalism, where contextual advertising tends not to work very well: There aren’t a lot of obvious products to tie in to an important investigative story about municipal corruption. Either way, though, the outcome is shaped by the default rule about the level of monitoring users are presumed to consent to. So which set of defaults ought we to prefer?

Here’s why I still come down mostly on Adam and Berin’s side, and against many of the regulatory remedies proposed. At the risk of stating the obvious, users start with de facto control of their data. Slightly less obvious: While users will tend to have heterogeneous privacy preferences – that’s why setting defaults either way is tricky – individual users will often have fairly homogeneous preferences across many different sites. Now, it seems to be an implicit premise of the argument for regulation that the friction involved in making lots of individual site-by-site choices about privacy will yield oversharing. But the same logic cuts in both directions: Transactional friction can block efficient departures from a high-privacy default as well. Even a default that optimally reflects the median user’s preferences or reasonable expectations is going to flub it for the outliers. If the variance in preferences is substantial, and if different defaults entail different levels of transactional friction, nailing the default is going to be less important than choosing the rule that keeps friction lowest. Given that most people do most of their Web surfing on a relatively small number of machines, this makes the browser a much more attractive locus of control. In terms of a practical effect on privacy, the coalition members would probably achieve more by persuading Firefox to set their browser to reject third-party cookies out of the box than from any legislation they’re likely to get – and indeed, it would probably have a more devastating effect on the behavioral ad market. Less bluntly, browsers could include a startup option that asks users whether they want to import an exclusion list maintained by their favorite force for good.

On the model proposed by the coalition, individuals have to make affirmative decisions about what data collection to permit for each Web site or ad network at least once every three months, and maybe each time they clear their cookies. If you think almost everyone would, if fully informed, opt out of such collection, this might make sense. But if you take the social benefits of behavioral targeting seriously, this scheme seems likely to block a lot of efficient sharing. Browser-based controls can still be a bit much for the novice user to grapple with, but programmers seem to be getting better and better at making it more easy and automatic for users to set privacy-protective defaults. If the problem with the unregulated market is supposed to be excessive transaction costs, it seems strange to lock in a model that keeps those costs high even as browser developers are finding ways to streamline that process. It’s also worth considering whether such rules wouldn’t have the perverse consequence of encouraging consolidation across behavioral trackers. The higher the bar is set for consent to monitoring, the more that consent effectively becomes a network good, which may encourage concentration of data in a small number of large trackers – not, presumably, the result privacy advocates are looking for. Finally – and for me this may be the dispositive point – it’s worth remembering that while American law is constrained by national borders, the Internet is not. And it seems to me that there’s a very real danger of giving the least savvy users a false sense of security – the government is on the job guarding my privacy! no need to bother learning about cookies! – when they may routinely and unwittingly be interacting with sites beyond the reach of domestic regulations.

There are similar practical difficulties with the proposal that users be granted a right of access to behavioral tracking data about them.  Here’s the dilemma: Any requirement that trackers make such data available to users is a potential security breach, which increases the chances of sensitive data falling into the wrong hands. I may trust a site or ad network to store this information for the purpose of serving me ads and providing me with free services, but I certainly don’t want anyone who sends them an e-mail with my IP address to have access to it. The obvious solution is for them to have procedures for verifying the identity of each tracked user – but this would appear to require that they store still more information about me in order to render tracking data personally identifiable and verifiable. A few ways of managing the difficulty spring to mind, but most defer rather than resolve the problem, and add further points of potential breach.

That doesn’t mean there’s no place for government or policy change here, but it’s not always the one the coalition endorses. Let’s look  more closely at some of their specific concerns and see which, if any, are well-suited to policy remedies. Only one really has anything to do with behavioral advertising, and it’s easily the weakest of the bunch. The groups worry that targeted ads – for payday loans, sub-prime mortgages, or snake-oil remedies – could be used to “take advantage of vulnerable consumers.” It’s not clear that this is really a special problem with behavioral ads, however: Similar targeting could surely be accomplished by means of contextual ads, which are delivered via relevant sites, pages, or search terms rather than depending on the personal characteristics or browsing history of the viewer – yet the groups explicitly aver that no new regulation is appropriate for contextual advertising. In any event, since whatever problem exists here is a problem with ads, the appropriate remedy is to focus on deceptive or fraudulent ads, not the particular means of delivery. We already, quite properly, have rules covering dishonest advertising practices.

The same sort of reply works for some of the other concerns, which are all linked in some more specific way to the collection, dissemination, and non-advertising use of information about people and their Web browsing habits. The groups worry, for instance, about “redlining” – the restriction or denial of access to goods, services, loans, or jobs on the basis of traits linked to race, gender, sexual orientation, or some other suspect classification. But as Steve Jobs might say, we’ve got an app for that: It’s already illegal to turn down a loan application on the grounds that the applicant is African American. There’s no special exemption for the case where the applicant’s race was inferred from a Doubleclick profile. But this actually appears to be something of a redlining herring, so to speak: When you get down into the weeds, the actual proposal is to bar any use of data collected for “any credit, employment, insurance, or governmental purpose or for redlining.” This seems excessively broad; it should suffice to say that a targeter “cannot use or disclose information about an individual in a manner that is inconsistent with its published notice.”

Particular methods of tracking may also be covered by current law, and I find it unfortunate that the coalition letter lumps together so many different practices under the catch-all heading of “behavioral tracking.” Most behavioral tracking is either done directly by sites users interact with – as when Amazon uses records of my past purchases to recommend new products I might like – or by third party companies whose ads place browser cookies on user computers. Recently, though, some Internet Service Providers have drawn fire for proposals to use Deep Packet Inspection to provide information about their users’ behavior to advertising partners – proposals thus far scuppered by a combination of user backlash and congressional grumbling. There is at least a colorable argument to be made that this practice would already run afoul of the Electronic Communications Privacy Act, which places strict limits on the circumstances under which telecom providers may intercept or share information about the contents of user communications without explicit permission. ECPA is already seriously overdue for an update, and some clarification on this point would be welcome. If users do wish to consent to such monitoring, that should be their right, but it should not be by means of a blanket authorization in eight-point type on page 27 of a terms-of-service agreement.

Similarly welcome would be some clarification on the status of such behavioral profiles when the government comes calling. It’s an unfortunate legacy of some technologically atavistic Supreme Court rulings that we enjoy very little Fourth Amendment protection against government seizure of private records held by third parties – the dubious rationale being that we lose our “reasonable expectation of privacy” in information we’ve already disclosed to others outside a circle of intimates. While ECPA seeks to restore some protection of that data by statute, we’ve made it increasingly easy in recent years for the government to seek “business records” by administrative subpoena rather than court order. It should not be possible to circumvent ECPA’s protections by acquiring, for instance, records of keyword-sensitive ads served on a user’s Web-based e-mail.

All that said, some of the proposals offered up seem,while perhaps not urgent, less problematic. Requiring some prominent link to a plain-English description of how information is collected and used constitutes a minimal burden on trackers – responsible sites already maintain prominent links to privacy policies anyway – and serves the goal of empowering users to make more informed decisions. I’m also warily sympathetic to the idea of giving privacy policies more enforcement teeth – the wariness stemming from a fear of incentivizing frivolous litigation. Still, the status quo is that sites and ad networks profitably elicit information from users on the basis of stated privacy practices, but often aren’t directly liable to consumers if they flout those promises, unless the consumer can show that the breach of trust resulted in some kind of monetary loss.

Finally, a quick note about one element of the coalition recommendations that neither they nor their opponents seem to have discussed much – the insistence that there be no federal preemption of state privacy law. I assume what’s going on here is that the privacy advocates expect some states to be more protective of privacy than Congress or the FTC would be, and want to encourage that, while libertarians are more concerned with keeping the federal government from getting involved at all. But really, if there’s an issue that was made for federal preemption, this is it.  A country where vendors, advertisers, and consumers on a borderless Internet have to navigate 50 flavors of privacy rules to sell a banner add or an iTunes track does not sound particularly conducive to privacy, commerce, or informed consumer choice.