The recent European Commission proposal to create a radical and likely near impossible-to-implement “right to be forgotten” provides an opportunity to do some thinking about how privacy norms should be established.
In 1961, Italian liberal philosopher and lawyer Bruno Leoni published Freedom and the Law, an excellent, if dense, rumination on law and legislation, which, as he emphasized, are quite different things.
Legislation appears today to be a quick, rational, and far-reaching remedy against every kind of evil or inconvenience, as compared with, say, judicial decisions, the settlement of disputes by private arbiters, conventions, customs, and similar kinds of spontaneous adjustments on the part of individuals. A fact that almost always goes unnoticed is that a remedy by way of legislation may be too quick to be efficacious, too unpredictably far-reaching to be wholly beneficial, and too directly connected with the contingent views and interests of a handful of people (the legislators), whoever they may be, to be, in fact, a remedy for all concerned. Even when all this is noticed, the criticism is usually directed against particular statutes rather than against legislation as such, and a new remedy is always looked for in “better” statutes instead of in something altogether different from legislation. (page 7, 1991 Liberty Fund edition)
The new Commission proposal is an example. Apparently the EU’s 1995 Data Protection Directive didn’t do it.
Rather than some central authority, it is in vernacular practice that we should discover the appropriate “common” law, emphasizes Leoni.
“[A] legal system centered on legislation resembles … a centralized economy in which all the relevant decisions are made by a handful of directors, whose knowledge of the whole situation is fatally limited and whose respect, if any, for the people’s wishes is subject to that limitation. No solemn titles, no pompous ceremonies, no enthusiasm on the part of the applauding masses can conceal the crude fact that both the legislators and the directors of a centralized economy are only particular individuals like you and me, ignorant of 99 percent of what is going on around them as far as the real transactions, agreements, attitudes, feelings, and convictions of people are concerned. (page 22-23, emphasis removed)
The proposed “right to be forgotten” is a soaring flight of fancy, produced by detached intellects who lack the knowledge to devise appropriate privacy norms. If it were to move forward as is, it would cripple Europe’s information economy while hamstringing international data flows. More importantly, it would deny European consumers the benefits of a modernizing economy by giving them more privacy than they probably want.
I say “probably” because I don’t know what European consumers want. I only know how to learn what they want—and that is not by observing the dictates of the people who occupy Europe’s many government bureaucracies.