“California leads the nation every year in automobile deaths. We’ve never lost. Don’t think you’re going to come in from New York, Pennsylvania, Florida and take our championship. We get most of them in the safety zones. ‘Come on, Martha! We’re in the safety zone! They have to stop! See those white lines?’ Did you ever see a white line stop a truck? Those lines are there so the police have some place to start measuring how far your body was thrown.”
Redd Foxx nailed it fifty years ago, though he probably wasn’t thinking about Google and Facebook and the NSA. People blow through crosswalks and stop signs and cross against lights all the time. Go down to the corner of Castro and Villa in downtown Googleburg on any given weekday at 5 PM and you can watch America’s stupidest intersection at work: cars blowing through red lights and red turn arrows, people walking across the street on a “don’t walk” just because the light turned green for cars, bicycles trundling down the sidewalk – you name it, and if it’s a traffic violation, somebody’s committing it. So much for the law. Why? Because it’s not that big a deal to people – culturally, there is a sense that abiding by the letter of the law is less urgent than indulging our own convenience.
By contrast, there’s very little to prevent me going around in public with no shirt on. Convenience stores notwithstanding – and God knows “No Shirt No Shoes No Service” held very little sway in the Jiffy Chek of my childhood memories – I could pretty much walk around downtown Googleburg with no shirt on all damn day and be wholly within the letter of the law. But I don’t, and the people of Googleburg are probably happy I don’t, and you know why? Because it’s not culturally appropriate. Not here, anyway.
Similarly, last week Microsoft apparently went into its own email service to trail down a leak. And on paper, by the terms of their own service, they were completely within their rights and the letter of the law to do so. Yet the backlash was immediate and huge: how dare Microsoft investigate a leak of their own data by searching the contents of their own mail servers? Put it that way and it starts to looks a little ridiculous – but there it is. People are outraged, culturally, about something that is technologically and legally 100% legitimate.
That’s the thing about Google and Facebook and the NSA. What they do to harvest your data is entirely within the letter of the law, most of the time. And when it’s not, it’s too profitable – or just too simple – not to abide by the letter of the law. If it takes less effort to scoop up an entire nation’s phone records and search for the target than to single out the target individual’s records, then the law be damned, that’s what the NSA is going to do. You can opt out of this or that or delete information from your Facebook profile, but what are the odds that data is actually gone? Nil, because I’ve deleted an item from my profile before and seen it crop back up years later as a recommended thing to favorite. And not something obvious like “Johnny Cash,” I mean a made-up term of our own devising that I listed as an interest as a goof, which had no page associated with it. Against the law? Even if it is, how do you plan to hold them to it?
That’s why the fix isn’t technological, or even legal. The technology is always running ahead of the law, the law can’t shift quickly enough, and the technology finds its own path. The only fix is cultural. We have to decide as a society that exploiting the ease of modern data-mining for commercial purposes without our control is somehow unacceptable, and act on the belief of that unacceptability. We didn’t stop making jokes about women drivers or slandering “Chinamen” or dressing up in blackface for frat parties because there was a law against it – we stopped because the culture changed to make those things unacceptable.
Add that to the list, and call it the Foxx Caveat: don’t rely on the fact of a white line to stop a truck.