Toothless tigers: The state of Internet privacy laws

Iran wants Facebook's CEO for privacy violations, but no worries, Zuck -- vague international laws are your friend

Will tech CEOs ever be prosecuted for privacy violations? Can they? It's an interesting and somewhat depressing question, mainly because it doesn't seem possible in the United States. If we prosecuted technology executives for infringing on our privacy -- say, over Facebook's recent announcement that it can record sounds around us via our iPhones -- the NSA and FBI would either be gutted or Obama would get writer's cramp from signing all those presidential pardons.

So far, tech CEOs in this country have been jailed solely for financial crimes, not for massive over-the-the-line delving into our private lives. In most Western countries, everyone from the NSA to Pizza Hut has shredded our personal privacy, and nobody in the various branches of government has done anything to change that.

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In the United States, it's always come down to cash. From Sanjay Kumar to John Rigas, tech execs are sent to the big house in this country only when they've stolen money (except for Jeff Hawn, who got time for shooting cows). In fact, the only technology- and privacy-related legal conversations in the United States seem to involve the spy agencies threatening technology CEOs with jail time if they don't violate our privacy.

But ignoring privacy legislation is probably the only course of action available to our judicial branch. If they remembered those laws they've conveniently forgotten, they'd instantly have to turn them on the other estates.

How would that work? Have the FBI investigate itself? That might help find loner moles like Aldrich Ames, but for this, the spooks would need to chase at least half its own staff. The NSA couldn't even go that far -- who there wouldn't be found culpable? You wouldn't hear about an internal investigation at the NSA; instead, you'd find an "offices available for lease" sign on their front door one day.

Meaningless victories

I'd love to say that other countries are ahead of the curve when it comes to prosecuting tech companies that violate their privacy laws. At least the headlines make it sound like they are. But they're really ignorant laws designed to screw up the Web instead of nailing the people actually committing crimes. Sure, you can make a case that Google is violating our privacy on an unprecedented scale, but international courts, including Italy, Spain, and now the European High Court, aren't trying to prosecute the company on that count.

In 2010 an Italian court ruled that other people's illegal, privacy-violating content was Google's fault, and it sentenced three local Google employees to six-month suspended sentences. At the time, Google responded with "outrage," vowing it would fight the case. Many European legal eagles thought the decision was ridiculous, too, like former U.K. information commissioner Richard Thomas who said, "It is like prosecuting the post office for delivering hate mail."

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