Regulatory Information Friction

Information is the gold standard of an economic public good, but here we mean good as in trading-good rather than the black and white of good-vs-evil.  There are plenty of examples (personal information, credit card numbers, passwords, trade secrets) where the flow of information drifts quickly into the gray areas.  The physical world used to be a lot more helpful in keeping information flows in check; the clay tablets got broken, the papers could be burnt, the walls contained the whispers.

There is nothing inherently immoral about creating regulatory barriers to increase the friction of information flows.  We do this a lot: copyright, patent rights, privacy laws, gambling, pornography, restrictions on free speech, digital rights management.  Questions about what we want from such regulatory mechanisms do, of course, need to be balanced off against questions about what can be effectively implemented.

Recently in my town private emails between some town employees were publicly revealed.  Many people seem to feel that these emails are should be public record since government mail servers were involved in the exchanges.  My reaction: “Wait till it happens to you.”  This lack of sympathy for other people’s privacy seems widespread.    Along these same lines I’m quite quite sympathetic to the lame attempt of these workers to limit the extent that workplace monitoring has on their privacy.

The means they chose is bogus, since it’s not implementable; but I’m entirely comfortable with the idea what we need to find ways to limit the flows of this torrent of information we are creating which enables pervasive monitoring of our every moment and action.  I’m not terribly sanguine that we can find such regulatory frames; but we should be looking hard.  That each time somebody attempts to find one we all make fun of them isn’t really terribly helpful.

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