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Privacy concerns, vetted and unvetted

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Sheesh. I may not be everybody's favorite internet political columnist (yet?), but perhaps it's because I didn't plan to be a columnist. I had a very quiet 1990s, where my only political activity was during the primary campaign of former Gov. Jerry Brown (D-CA) to pursue the Democratic nomination against Bill Clinton. The Democratic nominee turned out to be Clinton, in a race that was against the incumbent, George H. Bush. My 1990s included nothing political, other than that spring of 1992 when I was a Jerry Brown campaign coordinator.

From time to time, someone remembers me as a former (independent) presidential candidate. (My year was 1984, when I was the teenager turning 18 years old during my campaign against Ronald Reagan and Walter Mondale.) This means I get occasional stray phone calls, such as an editor wondering if I am running again this time (no), and one call in which I was offered a radio talk show (I turned it down). The fact that I turned down a talk show underscores the point above, that "I didn't plan to be a columnist."

Suddenly in 1999, Bill Clinton was signing a PNTR "permanent" most-favored-nation "free trade" agreement with Communist China. It went to Congress in 2000 and passed into law, over the objections of 79% of the American people, and myself, and leading Chinese dissidents. The blogosphere was not very powerful at that point. In fact, 2000 is when the "tech bubble" in the stock market burst. The climate became inconvenient for my start up software company, which tried to release a product in 1999 and 2000. That product launch became abortive, and the offering was pulled back.

Let's fast forward to the first week of July, 2008. Dial up internet is a thing that we've all forgotten, and Web 2.0 means that everyone can podcast, as well as blog and post internet political columns to various web sites. YouTube is another place that allows one and all to interact with today's political and social currents. Even while I had turned down a talk show before, I have started to podcast now. When there is word to get out, all of the tools of Web 2.0 come in handy. The events of 2000 created a category of people against the PNTR trade deal. As mentioned, that includes 79% of the American people, and myself, and leading Chinese dissidents.

So yes, we have word to get out, and that is why we can now see me as a "columnist and podcaster," although I began with ambivalence about it. For those who are given to overblown hype, "It's the return of the 18-year-old presidential candidate!" I'm not sure how I feel about such hype -- I am about to turn 42 years old. But I have rejoined "we the activists." It turns out that the main thing I have to say today is "boycott the Beijing Olympics."

Chinese dissidents from the Tiananmen Square uprising are turning 40-something in age like me, and they are remembered as the college students who ran the Chinese pro-democracy movement. They and I were the uppity political voices of Generation X in its early days. We are together in the Freedom First, Olympics Second Coalition, because the Beijing Olympics are the best occasion at which to push for freedom. In a recent column, I suggested that in addition to the Olympics, we should boycott its broadcaster NBC, as well as NBC's owner General Electric (which is a sponsor of the Olympics) and other sponsors -- Coca Cola, McDonalds, and Visa are to be avoided during August, according to this advocacy.

Focusing again on the first week of July, 2008, I developed and released two columns (plus a Happy Birthday America column). The first was a reaction to the news that YouTube would release to Viacom all of its video usage logs -- a vast amount of information about all of the video browsing that everyone does on YouTube -- under the orders of a U.S. District Court Judge. My column denounced, deplored, and decried this spillage of "TMI" -- too much information -- from the databases behind the YouTube web site. All YouTube users have a valid privacy concern. And in fact, there is a federal Video Privacy Protection Act which says that our video records should not be disclosed.

Before I released that article, I carefully vetted the underlying facts, so I knew that the log data included at least four crucial fields of data: a user name, an IP address, a video ID, and the date/time at which that user, at that IP address, began viewing that video. With that and other vetting, I released an article that I stand behind, confident that I encompassed the underlying facts.

The second column was similarly on the subject of privacy concerns, raised by spilling "TMI" -- too much information -- from the databases behind web sites. In this case, there is a large bill in Congress for an emergency bailout of some subprime mortgage borrowers and lenders. The larger bill was not my target for debate. Instead, I was raising a concern about a provision tucked in there to require the reporting of e-commerce and online transactions, as well as credit card transactions, to the IRS.

In this case, I did not vet the underlying facts. I simply read the alert about it, which came from FreedomWorks, a reputable organization which is run by former Congressman Dick Armey (R-TX), who was also the House Majority Leader during his tenure in Congress. I have always thought that Dick Armey was heroic as a Congressman in favor of a flat tax -- I also favor a flat tax! So, he's one of "the good guys," and his organization was up-in-arms about the IRS reporting provision for e-commerce within the Mortgage Bailout bill, and also his group is against the Mortgage Bailout bill on the whole in its entirety.

My article did something very similar to the messages from FreedomWorks. It cast Senator Chuck Grassley (R-IA) in an unflattering light, as the Orwellian Big Brother figure who wants to know about your shopping on eBay, Amazon, and other web sites. If these web sites delivered sales logs in a similar way as the YouTube usage logs -- at a disaggregate level of individual line items -- then it would certainly be an overreaching reporting requirement, an invasion of privacy, and unconstitutional.

However, the FreedomWorks alert (specifically about the reporting provision) does not stand up to vetting. Regrettably, I learned this only after my column was published. The reporting does not involve individual line items, nor even individual sales or customers. What is called for is a rolled up number -- an aggregate amount of sales for a given year. This is equivalent to the filing of a 1099 form, which is already a standard thing in business. One yearly number per merchant would be reported from each credit card or payment processor. The reporting is really for MasterCard, Visa, Amex, PayPal, and the like to undertake. In fact, nothing from the individual web sites and merchant's databases needs to go to the IRS.

So in this instance, the government's hand is not reaching into the databases behind web sites, and it is misplaced or overblown to decry a giant spill of information, or an invasion of privacy. If you own a business, you would receive something like a 1099 from the card / payment processors, and there is no new reporting on your part to the IRS; they're just trying to keep you honest about your income. Sheesh!

So at this point, I need to call out "false alarm" about my own prior column. It's official: I have been reading too many newsletters from Dick Armey, the former Congressman whom I still like for his stand in favor of a flat tax. He's still against the Mortgage Bailout bill overall, so he has kept his web-based alerts on the internet, even though it seems like a June 23 FAQ, put out by Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus, served to quell the discord about the IRS reporting requirement.

I don't think that Armey is coming out to correct himself, or to say "oops," but for my part I like to keep a reliable column, and I want to tell my readers "oops." My eyebrow rises a bit, because the FreedomWorks ad buy has continued after June 23, and I clicked on it and was sucked in. I don't want to pass a judgment on the overall bill; I was focused upon the spill-from-databases aspect which is a privacy issue stemming from computerization, a topic where I have some professional interest as a software developer.

To leave the ad buy running -- after a June 23 FAQ buried the e-commerce story -- bespeaks an attitude that "any opposition is good opposition" to the Mortgage Bailout bill. But really, this particular concern has been extinguished, and I want to extend my apology to Senator Chuck Grassley. He may be less evil, less Orwellian, and less given to Big Brother measures than as recently portrayed. (And, the provision cannot be entirely laid at Grassley's feet. Max Baucus and Charlie Rangel are also behind it, and the idea apparently came from a presidential budget request.)

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The author was once the 18-year-old candidate for U.S. President ('84) and later the founder of the China Support Network, post-Tiananmen Square.
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