Privacy Does Not Sell—Neither Did Safety

By Chris Hoofnagle

Posted on August 26, 2015


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Why do consumers choose privacy-invasive services? Why are more privacy-protective services not available? One explanation is that “privacy does not sell.” In fact, the marketplace is littered with failed companies that tried to sell privacy-protective services to consumers.


Ralph Nader, in his seminal Unsafe at Any Speed[1], offers some parallels from the automobile industry to consider in the debate over whether the market will create privacy options. Nader’s book concerned the safety characteristics of cars, and a chapter focuses on automobile companies’ opposition to safety mandates, such as mandatory installation of seat belts.


Representatives of General Motors led the charge against a seat belt mandate noting: 1) that there was public apathy toward the problem, that consumers did not want seat belts, 2) that there was a lack of evidence available about the efficacy of seat belts, 3) that the seat belts tested were uncomfortable and rumpled clothing, 4) that drivers simply would not wear seat belts, 5) and that seat belts would not protect the driver any more than gripping the wheel strongly and positioning one’s legs properly. There is some truth to all of these arguments (except the last), but as Nader pointed out, they are circular—ignorance about the dangers of driving and the lack of safety options depressed demand for seat belts. Nader argued that fear of alienating drivers—by making them think of the dangers of driving every time they drove—was the underlying issue animating opposition to seat belts. Seat belts were a symbol of the horror of auto accidents.


Under then vice president Robert McNamara, the Ford Company had great success in selling seat belts as an option. The company reported selling more than 400,000 seat belts since their introduction, and that no other option “ever caught on so fast.” So why didn’t safety become a competitive advantage? According to Nader, Ford ended its safety campaign in 1956, after “an internal policy struggle won by those who agreed with the General Motors analysis of the probable unsettling consequences of a vehicle safety campaign.” Safety, in the eyes of General Motors, was a threat to the entire industry.


Eventually New York State Legislators threatened to require car companies to install mounts in new automobiles so that consumers could easily self-install their own seat belts. The automotive industry’s trade group relented, but proposed a compromise: belt mounts would only be installed in the front seats, since so few rear-seat passengers died in accidents. By 1964 federal law required seat belts as standard equipment.


Privacy may be experiencing a similar problem in the marketplace. The information industry has powerful incentives to direct consumer attention away from data practices and harms, to claim that the public is apathetic, and to frame privacy problems as the result of autonomous choices made by individuals. Consider that Google resisted placing a link to the company’s privacy policy on Google.com—were Google executives concerned that users might think of privacy every time they clicked “search?”


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[1] Ralph Nader, Unsafe at Any Speed: The Designed-In Dangers of the American Automobile (1965).



The preceding is republished on TAP with permission by its author, Chris Hoofnagle, Director, Information Privacy Programs at the Berkeley Center for Law & Technology. “Privacy Does Not Sell—Neither Did Safety” was originally published August 18, 2015 on the Federal Trade Commission - Privacy Law and Policy site.


Chris Hoofnagle’s new book, Federal Trade Commission - Privacy Law and Policy, is expected to be released January 2016. This post, and others from his blog, are “sidebars” pulled from his manuscript as he has been developing the book.

 


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