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Posted by on Mar 24, 2015 in Business, Government, Internet, Science & Technology | 1 comment

Why One Bill of Rights Is No Longer Sufficient

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You might not know this, but back in 1962, President John F. Kennedy revealed to Congress and to the nation a four-point plan to safeguard the basic rights of the American consumer; this would become known as the Consumer Bill of Rights.

His vision was eventually taken up by the United Nations and expanded into no fewer than eight basic consumer rights, and would later result in something called World Consumer Rights Day. As a matter of fact, this not-quite-holiday just happened a little bit ago on March 15th. I guess most of us have forgotten all about it, or never knew it existed in the first place.

Below are the eight provisions of the Consumer Bill of Rights:

  • The right to safety
  • The right to be informed
  • The right to choose
  • The right to be heard
  • The right to satisfaction of basic needs
  • The right to redress
  • The right to consumer education
  • The right to a healthy environment

Don’t let the simple wording fool you; these are complicated issues, and corporations find ways all the time to skirt around them. You’re probably familiar with the practice yourself; I’d wager that, at least once in the last year, you’ve signed up for some kind of online service and been greeted by a hundred-page legal treatise followed by a big Accept button. I’ll also wager that you didn’t read a word of it, despite the fact that much of its wording—namely, the You can’t sue us for any reason clause—flies in the face of many of the above provisions of the Consumer Bill of Rights.

Becoming an Informed Consumer

So omnipresent are these towering legal documents that they’ve actually become the stuff of jokes; it’s taken as a given that very few Americans bother to read through, well, any of it before clicking Accept. We let nothing stand between us and gratification—not even a legally binding document that protects the corporation, rather than the customer.

I’m going to take this opportunity to remind you of something we all need to keep in mind: if you can’t figure out how a company makes its money, you are their cash cow. Neither Facebook, nor Google, nor any of the other countless “free” services you’ve come to rely on over the years do what they do out of the goodness of their heart.

But to be clear: that’s perfectly acceptable. Quid pro quo is the backbone of the American way of life. And for most of us, access to the indispensable Google Maps, for example, means electing to share some of our personal data with Google, the many-tentacled beast that rules the Internet. Most of us agree that it’s a trade-off worth making , especially considering all the ways that Google wants to make the world a better place. I’ll suffer through a targeted ad or two if it means Google Fiber comes to Harrisburg to free me from my indentured servitude to Verizon.

But the mistake we make too often is assuming that there’s no catch. We sign up for all of these free services and then react in all-too-predictable ways when it comes to light that the companies we thought worthy of our trust fall short of the mark. I laugh every time someone on Facebook laments the “theft” of personal data that they elected to provide. All I can ask is: How else did you think you were paying for this service?

The Government’s Role in the Private Sector

One of the follies of the Republican/Conservative/Libertarian platforms is assuming that government involvement of any kind in the private sector automatically constitutes “overreach.” It might not always feel like it, but the US government is, at its heart, still an advocate for the “average American.” Political cronyism and lobbying have warped these intentions over the long years, and Citizens United was the cherry on top of the shit sundae, but I still believe in the government as the best solution for protecting Americans from predatory corporations.

And no; I haven’t drunk the “big government” military surplus Kool-Aid. I simply believe in the potential of the US government to act as a fair, impartial, responsible, and incorruptible champion of the public good. It was once this way, and it can be so again. And I know that many of our public servants believe this also. The only thing required of us is to, you know, banish those very same corporations from participating in our government. Money is not free speech, corporations are not people, and Congress has no right to make corporate welfare a priority over the welfare of the people they serve.

Back in 2012, the Obama administration released a report called Consumer Data Privacy in a Networked World: A Framework for Protecting Privacy and Promoting Innovation in the Global Digital Economy. It was a sweeping declaration of the right of the US consumer to have peace of mind when it comes to how their private data is collected, stored, and used by Corporate America.

And President Obama hasn’t let up on the subject in the years since; he remains committed to introducing consumer protections in a world President Kennedy couldn’t even imagine back in the 1960’s. It’s gotten the attention of law experts from across the country, including Andrew Lustigman and Adam Solomon, who published their own “Overview and the Impact of the Consumer Privacy Bill of Rights.”

And if the letter I received yesterday from my healthcare provider (which detailed a recent large-scale data breach) is any indication, these issues will only become more important in the coming months and years. And when you factor in the unprecedented cyber threats from North Korea (or whoever the hell it was), it’s clear that the next challenge facing us as a nation is getting serious about protecting our interests online. Protecting us from hacking is no more a government assault on the sanctity of the Internet than anti-cyberbullying legislation is an assault on free speech.

I applaud President Obama for bringing these issues to the attention of the nation; he’s a science and tech nerd, and it shows. And yet I’m baffled that he still meets with resistance from people who don’t believe the government is either justified in, or capable of, dealing with these challenges. The private sector will not (and will probably never) self-correct; more often than not, they are incapable of doing the right thing until they’re shamed into it.

The bottom line here is that, as the American consumer continues to consume in new ways, the government will be looked to in new ways to make sure we’re not being taken advantage of by anyone—whether the ne’er-do-wells are headquartered in Silicon Valley or in Pyongyang. Most people are only familiar with the Bill of Rights in the Constitution; I say it’s time to write another.

Oh, and in case you have doubts, here’s your feel-bad story of the day: surprising exactly no-one, AT&T, Verizon, and a who’s-who of horrible companies, are taking the FCC to court over their recent Net Neutrality decision—a decision that, if you were paying attention, was made with the American consumer in mind. Let’s hope our representatives remember who the hell they really work for.

Image Credit: Flickr (via Creative Commons License)

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