Private space invaders take big hit

By Leonard Pitts Jr.

You might have missed it amid other headlines, but the Supreme Court came down on your side last week.

Granted, it’s not your side if you’re one of those folks who spend the day on the phone pestering people to change their long-distance service or buy vacation timeshares. If you are in fact one of those people (hereinafter referred to as “them”), let me offer a few words on behalf of the people you pester (hereinafter referred to as “us”):

Good-bye.
Sayonara.

And don’t let the doorknob hit’cha where the good Lord split’cha.

For the rest of us, here are the details: Last week, the top court refused to hear a challenge to the Federal Trade Commission’s Do Not Call List. As you probably know, by adding your phone number to that list (which you can do at www.donotcall.gov) you are legally protected from those annoying telephone solicitations that invariably pull you away from your meal, your nap, or your sweetie. The only exemptions are for charities, political organizations and pollsters. All other telemarketers are forbidden to call under threat of an $11,000 fine for each violation.

The American Teleservices Association, which represents hundreds of telemarketers, had argued that in drawing such a distinction, the ban violated telemarketers’ right to freedom of speech. But an appeals court ruled, and the Supreme Court apparently agreed, the distinction was warranted because commercial telemarketers engage in practices that are uniquely invasive, abusive and annoying.
And there’s more good news. The House of Representatives passed two bills last week that would levy heavy fines against those who install so-called spyware in your computer, i.e., software that surreptitiously changes your security settings, tracks your transactions and transmits your personal data.

Taken together, the headlines from the House and the high court represent welcome victories for the right to privacy some of us find implicit in the Bill of Rights. Frankly, privacy needs all the help it can get just now.

It’s not just spyware and telemarketers. It’s the spam epidemic, it’s the Patriot Act, it’s junk faxes, it’s those discount cards your supermarket uses to keep track of your buying habits.

It is, in other words, a growing sense of intrusion and surveillance so pervasive that you wonder if there are still places you can go to where someone is not monitoring your activity, trying to sell you something, or both.

It occurs to me that George Orwell was only partially right. His classic novel “1984” postulated a totalitarian government watching all the people all the time.

And granted, government will seize any opportunity to snoop — witness the aforementioned Patriot Act. But actually, it’s big business that is leading the invasion of your and my privacy.

Consider how your personal information is bought and sold, companies you do business with ratting you out to others you’d never buy from in a million years.

Consider that you’ve got to give up your name, address and other vitals just to read certain newspapers online these days. Consider that telemarketer calling you by your first name and implying with a perky tone of voice a friendship that does not exist, all while trying to sell you something the computer says you need.

So yes, I think the court and the Congress are moving in the right direction. I just wish they’d move a little faster.
Because the private spaces in our lives, the ones accessible to no one but us, the places that are commercial free and without hype, those places where one is free to simply be … those places are going away faster than the Amazon rain forest.

Some people call that progress. But if you’re like me, you find it more than a little creepy.

I guess that’s the difference between us and them.

Leonard Pitts is a columnist for the Miami Herald. Readers may contact him at: lpitts@herald.com