Backwards

Well, as usual, the progressives have the rights and roles of private individuals vs. government exactly backwards, from Kevin Drum:

As I said earlier, I'm on the fence a bit about whether an indiscriminate release of thousands of U.S. embassy cables is useful. After all, governments have a legitimate need for confidential diplomacy. But when I read about WikiLeaks' planned financial expose [release of private emails from a private corporation], I felt no such qualms. A huge release of internal documents from a big bank? Bring it on!

The government and public officials acting in a public capacity have no rights to privacy of their work and work products from the public that employs them (except to the extent that privacy pays some sort of large benefit, which I would define pretty narrowly).  While things like the recent Wikileak are certainly damaging to things like sources and foreign relations, I have sympathy for such a mass dump when the government so systematically defaults to too much secrecy and confidentiality for what should be public business, mainly to avoid accountability.  The public has the right to know just about whatever the government is doing, in detail.

In the private sector, ordinary citizens have no similar "right to know" the private business of private entities, the only exception being in criminal investigations where there are clear procedures for how confidential private information may be obtained, used, and protected.  Had the proposed email dump related to alleged misconduct, I would have been pretty relaxed about it.  But the proposed document dump is just voyeurism.  One may wish for more accountability processes vis a vis banks, but in a country supposedly still founded on the rule of law, we don't get to invent new ex post facto rules, such as "if your industry pisses off enough Americans, all the material that was previously legally private is retroactively made part of the public domain."

Drum may be gleeful now, but someday he just might be regretful of establishing a precedent for consequence-free theft and publication of private information.   Had, for example, the words "big bank" in the paragraph been replaced by, say, "Major newspaper," we would likely see Drum in a major-league freak out, though the New York Times corporation has exactly the same legal status as Citicorp.

Everyone thinks his own information is "different" and somehow on a higher plane than other people's information.  Drum likely thinks his communication by email with sources is special, while I would argue release of my confidential internal communication about new service offerings and pricing strategies would be particularly damaging.  The way we typically settle this is to say that private is private, and not legally more or less private based on subjective opinions by third parties about the value of the data.

  • Max Lybbert

    I agree with the post pretty much completely, but would add:

    > The government and public officials acting in a public capacity have no rights to privacy of their
    > work and work products from the public that employs them (except to the extent that privacy pays
    > some sort of large benefit, which I would define pretty narrowly).

    I agree with this in general, but would mention that the US Constitution was written behind closed doors (with information about the debates released only after the document was ratified). So, yes, there are times when secrecy pays large benefits, even outside of war operations like D-Day.

    > While things like the recent Wikileak are certainly damaging to things like sources and foreign
    > relations, I have sympathy for such a mass dump when the government so systematically defaults to
    > too much secrecy and confidentiality for what should be public business, mainly to avoid
    > accountability.

    I actually thought the fact that the leaked documents were not top secret but lower forms of "confidential; don't tell foreigners what we're really saying about them" suggested that these documents were classified correctly.

    It's a simple fact that anything written down has the potential to come back and haunt you ( http://www.professorbainbridge.com/professorbainbridgecom/2010/09/say-it-with-roses-say-it-with-mink-but-never-ever-say-it-in-ink.html ).

  • Gil

    You want go into Area 51 don't you?

  • http://evilredscandi.blogspot.com Evil Red Scandi

    Yeah, but you're forgetting that all animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.

  • stan

    Drum is such a good example of a liberal. Guided by his feelings with no concern or appreciation for the long term implications of rash actions.

  • Mesa Econoguy

    Beyond the private corporate status issue, release of internal docs from a large bank, along the lines of the latest WikiLeaks dump, will likely contain non-public information, like account numbers, names and addresses.

    Unauthorized release of that kind of information is very prosecutable, so whoever reveals that is at significant legal risk if they do not make the proper redactions.

  • http://www.grouchyconservativepundits.com Mike C.

    Seems a bit disingenuous to stand on the rule of law for private concerns and ignore the very substantial violations of the law exhibited by the current and previous wiki dumps.

  • Cardin Drake

    Well, this document release is interesting. I can't support anything that compromises national security however. I don't see how people are not being prosecuted for this. Even so, part of me is enjoying the discomfiture of those in charge, and it is hilarious to see the conservative world view supported for the most part by this document dump. Arab nations pleading for us to take out Iran's nukes--what liberal would have thunk it.
    However, when it comes to banks, I have to disagree. I would love to see them embarrassed. Many of them are no longer private enterprises, but exist as part of the "corporate state", and I welcome anything that throws sunlight on that disgrace.

  • Sam L.

    Drum thinks that way because he's in a "protected" class--rules don't apply to him. He will scream loudly if the ox comes to gore him, but he's pretty sure it won't.