• United States

Not sweating the small stuff

May 31, 20044 mins
Enterprise ApplicationsRegulation

When you’ve got a business to run you shouldn’t have time to sweat the small stuff. This means, for example, that if your company produces widgets and you are responsible for ensuring widgets get produced profitably, then you are unlikely to worry about where the janitor stores the hand soap or arranging for white lines to be repainted in the parking lot.

There are only so many working hours in the day, so there are whole realms of things you, in your management role, shouldn’t pay attention to.

Unfortunately it appears that the job of politicians is not so clear-cut. State Sen. Liz Figueroa (D-Fremont) seems to think that in the panoply of weighty matters she must apply herself to, the issue of Google’s nascent free e-mail service demands legislation.

Actually, to be accurate, the bill Figueroa is working on, SB 1822, is written to be rather more general than just applying to Google. It aims to “prohibit a provider of e-mail or instant-messaging services, as defined, that serves California customers, from reviewing or evaluating the content of a customer’s e-mail or instant messages for marketing purposes, as defined, except with the customer’s, or with the customer’s and the sender’s, consent.”

According to various news stories, what appears to have triggered this piece of fevered law making was the announcement of Google’s free Gmail service, which, in exchange for giving consumers 1G byte of message storage, will place advertisements in received messages. In Google’s terms of service, the company states that Gmail boxes will be scanned to build user profiles for ad targeting.

According to CNet, Figueroa is quoted as saying that this “will be the first law in the nation to ensure that this type of technology is never used to create files on consumers.” She went on: “It forbids e-mail providers from retaining personally identifiable information that is obtained from the use of the technology; it forbids human access to the information; and forbids the transfer of information to third parties. And it requires that when consumers delete e-mail, the file is deleted and is not retained somewhere.”

I am all for legislation to protect consumer privacy, but this bill smacks of micromanagement of a market – a bad idea. Laws should not be created to control technology, they should address the issues of how data is acquired and used.

What I’m suggesting is that bills such as this one shouldn’t be about the behavior of “e-mail providers”; they should be about how businesses should handle their market data on consumers.

Moreover, they should address these issues conceptually because technology is too slippery – what is today’s hot technology or product is next week’s aging and obsoleted IETF RFC.

So why is Figueroa all fired up about e-mail providers? Where was she when Experian and the other consumer credit companies were getting powerful? What is she going to do about it now? What is the senator planning to do about the atrocious error rates in the databases of the credit reporting companies (or should that be “credit guessing companies”)?

Senator, as much as I applaud what I think are your motives, I am depressed to see you wasting my time and my money trying to create laws for something that many consumers willingly will opt into. If you want to be seen to be doing something important, develop legislation that will really address a serious issue, such as the spam problem.

But no, it appears that tilting at this particular windmill is far more interesting (and, for that matter, PR-friendly), and once again it seems that the politicians focus on the sizzle and not the bacon because there’s less mileage in the bacon. That sizzle you hear, senator? That is the sound of your credibility boiling away as you sweat the small stuff.

Lay down the law at

by Mark Gibbs

Mark Gibbs is an author, journalist, and man of mystery. His writing for Network World is widely considered to be vastly underpaid. For more than 30 years, Gibbs has consulted, lectured, and authored numerous articles and books about networking, information technology, and the social and political issues surrounding them. His complete bio can be found at

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