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|Anne Wells Branscomb’s Who Owns Information? peceded both
Cavoukian and Tapscott’s Who Knows and the Philip Agre/Marc
Rotenberg-edited Technology and Privacy by three years; neither of
the successor titles deliver as much raw data about the personal information
industry as Branscomb’s work, but Technology and Privacy makes up for
the lack with a strong academic bent.
The depth of Branscomb’s research and analysis is indicated at least superficially by the book’s typography and layout; where Who Knows uses a rather large and open typeface, Who Owns Information?‘s printing is compact yet easy to read. A quick count of words per line and lines per page indicates that Branscomb’s book, which has a nearly identical page count to Who Knows, contains 30% more words. And they’re good words to boot.
Branscomb sets the stage with a brief look at the legal and technological landscape before diving into an analysis of the direct mail industry. In 1990 direct mail solicitations brought in over $50 billion in the United States alone, with bulk mail accounting for around 40% of the US Postal Service’s volume. Needless to say, both direct marketers and the Postal Service have a vested interest in maintaining comprehensive, accurate lists of individuals’ addresses to maintain the outgoing flow of solicitations and incoming current of money. To ensure the mail reaches its intended recipients, the Postal Service collates change of address forms on a daily basis and, through a set of clearing houses, forwards the information to direct mailers. The upshot is that, even if US mail customers had their names removed from unwanted mailing lists at their previous addresses, their names would be very likely to reappear on those same lists if they moved. The only way to avoid this dilemma is to not have mail forwarded from the old address.
Branscomb also goes into the policy options available to the government and direct mail industry. The most draconian, from the direct marketers’ standpoint, is an “opt-in” system solicitors would need consumers’ positive consent before mailing or phoning for commercial purposes.
The author follows a similar analytical path through the familiar ground of medical and government information, but sets her book apart by also covering the struggle to determine ownership of religious, entertainment, and computer software-related information. The Lotus/Borland spreadsheet “look and feel” wars are well-known in the software industry, but Branscomb brings the controversy to non-programmers with easily understood explanations of the issues and arguments involved in the lawsuit. That style serves readers well throughout the rest of the book.
Who Owns Information? is somewhat dated, but many of the patterns and practices extant when the book came out are still in place. More recent books update events in the issues Branscomb explores and offer more in-depth analysis of the state of informational privacy law, but Who Owns Information? provided the “giant shoulders” for the other books to stand on.
Curtis D. Frye (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the editor and chief reviewer of Technology and Society Book Reviews. He worked for four years as a defense industry analyst at The MITRE Corporation in McLean, VA, and is the author of Privacy-Enhanced Business, from Quorum Books.