Data privacy

Personal computer (picture Penarc)

Some people said that the rise of globalisation would lead to the end of government. People could trade and communicate with each other across national borders and regulation as we know it would start to disappear. Fuelled by the internet, state power will irreversibly decline.

(I wrote about globalisation and how federalists should respond here.)

The internet represents globalisation raised to the Nth degree. The constraints of geography disappear: I am writing this blog entry in London, readers of this blog live all round the world (according to our webalizer stats), and I have absolutely no idea where the blog is actually hosted. Somewhere on the planet there is a computer server holding the data that makes up the Federal Union website, and it doesn’t matter at all where it actually is.

But along with the spread of the internet goes the spread of the issues it raises. For example, privacy. Not only is this blog visible all round the world, but so potentially is the private information of everyone reading the blog. Computers leave a trail of what they have done: some of this information is willingly handed over – when you use your credit card to join Federal Union, perhaps – but more of it just happens because that’s how computers are. Your search records, your browsing history, the e-mails you send: it could in theory end up anywhere.

The implications of this mean not the end of state power but its redesign. Privacy laws, if they are to have any meaning, have to apply around the world. National measures to protect privacy will struggle to be effective. And it is the computer industry itself that is waking up to this. Read an article about Google lawyers’ views here.

They realise that their industry is under threat unless they can establish a secure and stable framework for regulation. The people who were once seen as challenging or outgrowing state power now realise they depend on it the same as the rest of us.

But, as I said in the blog entry about the metric system the regulation of commerce is one of the earliest and most fundamental duties of the state. Weights and measures is a traditional area of law; privacy regulation is a more modern one. And as the marketplace goes global, so must the reach of regulation. National sovereignty never looked so frail.

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