Life is easy for people who have just one bte noire and a trusty silver bullet. There are, for example, people whose bte noire is censorship and whose silver bullet is the First Amendment.
And there are many whose life is all about this week's subject - privacy - as if nothing else matters.
The problem is that privacy conflicts with other important rights, such as freedom of speech. This conflict is prominent in the sad story of Princess Diana and, in the proliferation of "spam" - unwanted e-mail on the Internet.
Many of you report what I'm experiencing: half my e-mail is spam, jubilantly exercising its freedom of speech. And it's not a good omen that much of the spam I'm getting touts new spamming services.
Many Internet users are upset about spam and want something done. I fear we will rush to legislate spam away and end up with defective law.
Recently, Esther Dyson and Susan Scott invited a bunch of us to discuss privacy over lunch.
Dyson writes the Release 1.0 newsletter (www.edventure.com) and is my second-favourite technology pundit; Scott is executive director of TRUSTe.
TRUSTe, formerly eTRUST, is a nonprofit initiative to establish trust in electronic commu-nications by creating infrastructure for online privacy. TRUSTe (www.truste.org) was formed by the Electronic Frontier Foundation (www.eff.org), which Dyson chairs, and CommerceNet (www. commerce.net).
TRUSTe is focused on publisher disclosure and consumer consent through "trust marks". Seeing the TRUSTe mark assures consumers that a Web site discloses and stands behind its policies on what personal information it collects and how that information is used. Click on the mark at TRUSTe's Web site to see a sample of such a disclosure.
To display the TRUSTe mark, sites negotiate a disclosure statement with TRUSTe and pay a fee of between $US500 and $US5000. When Web visitors click on the mark, it displays the site's particular privacy policies.
TRUSTe is new, and its first mark assures only disclosure. A site can use the current mark to disclose perfectly putrid privacy policies.
Who's keeping watch?
Representatives of the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) at MIT were also at Dyson's lunch; W3C has a Platform for Privacy Preferences Project (P3P), which is working to automate checking of your preferences on privacy policies against those disclosed by the sites you visit.
With P3P (www.w3.org/P3) you could, for example, be warned by your browser if you happen upon a site that collects e-mail addresses for promotions.
The difficulty in all this is that privacy and freedom of speech must be balanced carefully. This raises hell from people for whom privacy or freedom of speech is their silver bullet. Let the flaming begin.
What is spam? If you send a bunch of e-mail, they're probably protected speech. But if someone else does, it's definitely spam.
At the TRUSTe lunch, Dyson gave us copies of her new book Release 2.0: a Design for Living in the Digital Age (www.release2-0.com). I recommend the book, which touches on TRUSTe. But hey, was Dyson spamming us with her book at lunch?
Anonymity is big among privacy paranoids, who want anonymity protected at all costs. On the other hand, much spam comes with fake return addresses, making it nearly impossible for a recipient to get off an undesired list.
Anonymity is low-grade privacy and should be avoided.
If a little e-postage were paid for each copy of e-mail, spam would drop to tolerable levels. Freedom of speech should be protected, but free speech is a nuisance.
Technology pundit Bob Metcalfe invented Ethernet in 1973 and founded 3Com in 1979, and today he specialises in the Internet. Send e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org