Editorial: When privacy laws become oppressive

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Individuals best judge of what they consider private.

The council is proposing a bylaw to enforce the signs that some people put on their mailboxes declaring they want no circulars or advertising material or any unaddressed mail whatsoever. Photo / Thinsktock
The council is proposing a bylaw to enforce the signs that some people put on their mailboxes declaring they want no circulars or advertising material or any unaddressed mail whatsoever. Photo / Thinsktock

How private do we want to be? It is a serious question, prompted by two moves afoot - one by the Auckland Council, the other by the office of the Privacy Commissioner - that could give citizens more privacy than is good for them.

The council is proposing a bylaw to enforce the signs that some people put on their mailboxes declaring they want "no junk mail" or, more politely, no circulars or advertising material or any unaddressed mail whatsoever.

Most people who go to this trouble to stop organisations contacting them will heartily applaud the Auckland Council's proposed bylaw, which is no more than what was in force in one or two of the areas amalgamated into the Super City. They will have no sympathy for the odd community group that fears it will lose the only form of communication capable of reaching all residents.

These public-spirited folk seem unable to believe that their fellow citizens really do not want to know what the residents' association is doing about local amenities, or that a street party has been planned for Christmas.

At least, they do not want to know these things if it means their mailbox is likely to receive all the litter distributed as direct mail. They do not want the bother of throwing it out, and they particularly do not want it building up in their box, alerting burglars that they are away.

People have the right to decide not to receive material, to opt out by publicly advising that on their box, and it should be respected.

The Privacy Commissioner wants to go much further, attacking direct mail at its source in the information that can be gathered about individuals' spending habits and preferences. The commissioner wants the powers of the office widened so that it no longer acts only on complaints from the public but can take action against organisations that might be gathering and using information without the subject of the information being aware of it.

Is this so bad? It sounds sneaky, even creepy, but it is simply trying to sell people things they might like. All advertising attempts to reach the most likely buyers of the product it is selling. Advertising is not regarded as a public service because it is done for a profit, but public service and profits are not mutually exclusive. All trade is an exchange of benefit.

Is privacy so important that we do not want direct advertising to know what we might like? Privacy is a relatively new concern of legislators and regulators. It is a concern that originated in rarefied circles of policy-making, not from popular demand.

Principles of privacy are now written into public service rules, sometimes to the detriment of sensible advice that health professionals, for example, might give to family members of a distressed person.

It is hard to write a privacy code for everybody. Information that some people would keep to themselves, others put on Facebook. Individuals differ widely on what they want to share and what they regard as private. The best way to regulate such a variable and subjective human right is to adjudicate on complaints.

Complaints involve real people with real concerns. We might be much less concerned than the commissioner thinks we should be, or would be if we knew what consumer information was being exchanged about us. But do we really care?

If it means we get alerted to travel deals or gift possibilities or it is just another addition to the waste paper collection, it is harmless. Strict privacy is for hermits, the rest of us interact with the world and can judge when marketers exceed our tolerance.

- NZ Herald

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