Privacy 03/15/2007

Discouraged Advocate Seeks Legislators that Refuse to Coddle

I traveled to Florida with a large dose of optimism and returned a jaded man – all in one day. Public policy work can do this to you – particularly when a bill you testify against gets passed unanimously by the committee that heard your testimony.

The occasion: testifying in Tallahassee on a bill that would regulate online dating websites. (HB 531 – The Internet Predator Awareness Act). It would require websites to disclose whether they perform criminal background checks on their members. It would also require disclosures about how to practice safe online dating and not to put too much faith in the results of criminal background checks.

That’s a lot of disclosures and disclaimers, stuff that most consumers will not read and could care less about – especially because a clear criminal background check is no excuse to let down your guard on common sense precautions (in my testimony I warned that this bill could give consumers a false sense of security).

But there’s a larger theme going on here – the nanny state of government is creeping into e-commerce. 

What are the benefits of this bill that the market isn’t providing? If security-conscious consumers want to use a service that provides background checks, they can do so already, and can even perform criminal checks on their own.

We don’t need government regulation to mandate which services a website must provide. Governments should protect us from decisions we can’t make, not from decisions we can make. And while trying to protect us, policymakers should refrain from passing legislation that could have serious unintended consequences.

So how did I lose? My reasoning was persuasive, as a chairman and committee member told me afterwards. But it seems that logic can lose to publicly visible pandering. An identical bill was called out in an editorial for being “pandering” when it was heard in New Jersey last week:

N.J. lawmakers are promoting the bill for one simple reason: their
uncontrollable urge to pander to citizens whenever possible, this time
by creating the impression that this bill makes legislators strong on
public safety, when in actuality the measure is a waste of their time
and the public’s.

Color me jaded.

– Braden

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