A fish in a digital aquarium – the issue of Privacy, Capitalism and the Supreme Court

I was speaking in a panel moderated by the preeminent Professor Jagdish N. Sheth at ASB, Coimbatore. Of the several nuggets of wisdom and crystal ball gazing from Jag Sheth.. here is one:

I had just finished talking about how the digital trails of customers can be leveraged to create value for both the consumer and the firm. A student had raised concerns about how it may lead to issues of privacy.

The sense of and meanings about Privacy were stronger with the older generation and mattered a lot less with the young. In fact, my second daughter in school is a happy fish in a digital aquarium where people could peer. She has little qualms about lack of privacy. She is OK with, say, FB and Whatsapp, reading her texts, data etc. and went on to suggest that it was even better if they used it to her advantage. However, she was not OK with harmful abuse of private information. Clearly, the younger generation had different view of privacy and it was lot more liberal than mine.

Jag’s response was that it was not far when personal data including digital footprints will be a private property up for sale. So capitalism will exploit every asset including personal information. The question is how it can be contained. There is enough room for suspicion that with lax legislation (influenced by powerful lobbying) and enforcement can do so. Conscious capitalism may partially solve the problem; but it is practiced by only a few and we should be worried about the ones that will exploit unscrupulously..however small the set may be.

Of all the forces, Jag Sheth reposed trust in the Supreme Court. He recalled how cigarette firms are now moving away from making cigarettes due to Supreme Court considering penalties up to $280 billion. The fundamental argument is that since the firms knew that smoking caused cancer and willfully marketed them, they should be liable for the consequences. It is quite unlikely that such high penalties may be imposed since they may be considered “excessive”…implying the penalties, while they function to compensate for the damages caused to the aggrieved, should also be reforming the defendant.

The analogy is that firms that use data to the detriment of a consumer will face stiff penalties and then may act as a deterrent. True. But my argument is that it takes a long while. Just as took a long while to ban cocaine from Coke or consider terrorism as a heinous crime against the State.

But that is a price we pay for democracy.

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