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Internet Privacy and Corporate Free Speech

Internet Privacy and Corporate Free Speech

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September 13, 2013

When I think of great defenders of big business and the profit motive, Mother Jones is not exactly the first name that comes to mind. Last month, for example, the magazine posted a favorable review of a book denouncing the food industry for not feeding people . Yet one Mother Jones writer last weekend managed to recognize that in the case of the Internet—what do you know—big businesses generally make their profits by serving their customers:

So which do you trust more? Google’s desire to give its customers what they want , or the NSA’s ability to get what they want? Good question. The vast majority of people won't care about this at all, but I suspect that more than a few will decide that NSA has more power than Google and will simply decline to do business in the future with American companies if it involves storage of information on the cloud.

What this underscores is that in a free market, people’s interests align . Google—even apart from any ideological commitments it has to free speech and privacy—knows that it flourishes because it helps its users flourish. Google’s customers choose Google every day, and we choose Google because Google is good —good for us. If Google wants to remain a successful enterprise, it needs to keep convincing us to make that choice. And the same is true of other Internet businesses, such as Yahoo and even Facebook.

More fundamentally, we all have the same interest in individual rights—and we all have an interest in everyone else’s rights. One reason for that, of course, is simply that what the government does to me today, it may do to you tomorrow.

But another reason is one that comes to the fore in the context of defending Internet users’ privacy against the NSA: technology companies have reason to provide privacy, since users tend to want it, but they can’t provide more privacy than they are free to provide. So if people want privacy on the Internet, they need to be concerned with the rights of companies such as Google and Yahoo.

That’s why it’s scary that Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer thought telling Americans what our government was doing us would be “treason” and could get her “incarcerated.” Mayer must employ lawyers who know better, and a spokesperson later amended her statement: the danger was contempt of court . But either way, Yahoo’s CEO was afraid of going to prison for speaking out about the NSA.

In a fully free society, Yahoo would be free to give its users a full picture of the privacy it offers, and the users might well demand it. It would be a simple matter of free speech, for the purpose of a free decision to do business.

And that’s something to remember. Many on the left think corporations such as Yahoo and Google aren’t entitled to free speech; that’s why they think it’s OK for campaign-finance laws to restrict corporations’ political speech. And they think commercial speech isn’t entitled to the full protection of the First Amendment. But the speech we need to hear to fully understand the state of privacy on the Internet is a full report from the Internet companies we rely on about their cooperation with the government—and that would be corporate, commercial speech. Those, even those on the left, who value online privacy need to uphold the freedom of corporate, commercial speech.