Making Room for Privacy in the Global Village

Article excerpt

Thirty years ago my company, McGraw-Hill, published a book by the visionary Marshall McLuhan. In that book, Mr. McLuhan predicted the coming of a global village - a world of electronic connections, where distance no longer mattered as a barrier between people.

Today McLuhan's vision is reality and, like families adjusting to apartment living, we all are learning how to live in closer proximity to one another than most of us could have imagined a generation ago.

We're also seeing our privacy jostled and threatened by the electronic frontier. We're constantly being asked questions such as what's your mother's maiden name? What's your Social Security number? How much money do you earn? We fill out an online form to subscribe to a magazine, or to buy stocks, or to to purchase an item from a catalog. Each time, we wonder who's going to see our personal information. An advertiser who wants to figure out which car to try to sell us? A direct marketer ready to barrage us with unwanted mail and e-mail? A nosy neighbor who wants to find out more about us?

For Americans, it's a particularly thorny issue: the opportunity to link the global village more closely vs. the privacy demanded by our individualistic culture. In order to achieve all the benefits of the democratization of knowledge, we've got to come to agreement on what we should and should not share. Privacy is a human right, and it must be protected.

As a global information provider in financial services, publishing, and information and media, more than 90 percent of my company's products are digitized - available in electronic form. And like many other corporations, McGraw-Hill sees much of its growth in digital, electronic platforms. Gaining the trust of our customers - the trust that we will respect and protect their privacy - is essential to taking advantage of the huge opportunities we have to customize information for each individual's needs.

Wary of the Internet

Recently, 60 percent of respondents to an online survey stated that privacy concerns created a significant barrier to their acceptance of electronic commerce. In another survey, 2 out of 3 said they would leave a Web site if they were asked to provide personal information - or worse, that they would provide information that was false.

Meanwhile, advocacy groups and several members of Congress have been calling for extremely stringent government restrictions on the collection of consumer data. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC), in an attempt to assess various options, has held its second round of hearings on the subject. In testimony before the commission, I indicated that there could be significant benefits to a policy of industry self-regulation - provided that industry action is prompt, comprehensive, and diligent in its execution. …