firmly in place has been confirmed through an abundance of historical evidence.
"X-File" and Privacy Protection
Recently a controversial report revealing the private life of showbiz celebrities created a huge issue on the Internet. The report had been initially drawn up by a research firm at the request of an ad agency with the aim of minimizing risk for advertisers. Yet the report about the personal lives of 125 entertainers came to be put on the Internet. As a result, 59 of the enraged entertainers mentioned in the report filed a complaint against the ad agency and research firm for libel. Moreover, some even are strongly pushing to enact a law on privacy protection. Most people may believe that the protection of privacy is fundamentally good. Does it really have only positive aspects?
What is Privacy?
It is necessary to first define privacy. You bump into a number of people in your everyday life. You begin dialogue with them at every corner of society, such as at your job, in school and at a park, and by interacting with them to learn about their character, personality, individuality and other personal information. You talk about your own life with your peers, listen to theirs in return, and share rumors spreading through the Internet with them too. Even though you do not intentionally collect the information, the information acquired from them can remain in your head unless you forget it. If you should keep it a secret, it will bear a cost in your relationships in that you are not willing to share it with others. Another cost is that you have to look for it as well. If you find certain information valuable, you will strive to seek it even at some cost, since it may afford you an opportunity to reap huge profits. Given this fact, in some aspect, privacy issues can be said to be about concealing or searching for information about people's personal lives.
Conventionally, privacy has been protected in light of protection of human body and property. For instance, unauthorized invasion of another's place has been prohibited, and so has opening other people's windows or peeping inside without permission of the owner. People have enjoyed their private life in a free way within their own space. As industrialization developed, however, protection of privacy has been extended to include private information issues and the genetic information of criminals.
Most people consider extending privacy protection as very desirable, and detest disclosing one's privacy. On the top of that, some urge that individuals should be entitled to control the use of their own personal information. In other words, they think that the property right of private information should be acknowledged so that others cannot use it for personal or public purposes without permission of the owner. In this case, the personal information can be transferred to a person who values it most, through a voluntary exchange process. This assertion sounds quite convincing. In fact, granting property rights to corporate confidentiality will give a boost to the trend that people invest in socially valuable information, since production of information itself can bring them a huge benefit.
Yet, one has to think carefully about what kind of information should be circulated and if the use of this personal information can be controlled. If each person has full control of their own information, they are likely to allow others to use only favorable information. Unflattering information will compromise their reputation, while positive ones will enhance their image. For instance, they will hide potentially embarrassing information, such as a previous criminal record or health information, when signing an employment contract. In this case, the problem gets serious. This enables would-be employees to hide valuable information, which may prevent employers from correctly evaluating them. If the information is properly revealed, the employers may offer a lower wage or not employ them at all. Protection of privacy in this case is nothing more than allowing frauds in commercial trades. Given this, it seems that protection of privacy is not always good.
Is collecting personal information always undesirable?
People usually collect information about a person when they are about to execute a contract with him. They also tend to collect diverse information such as financial statements and the management condition when they are about to invest in a company. Most people support this kind of information collection.
Then, what is wrong with an ad agency collecting personal information about entertainers? Advertisers who have tendered large ad contracts to showbiz celebrities have incurred huge losses when the entertainer's image was degraded. An entertainer was deprived of his chance to feature in a CF when his private problem was made issue, consequently degrading the image of the company. Since ad agencies are well aware of the problem, they tend to predict the values of CF models by collecting data regarding their private lives, image and reputation. The information acquired with this aim is very valuable to ad agencies and advertisers. It is because information on CF models highly influences CF's reliability, and further, it is directly associated with the profits of advertisers and ad agencies. Probably, agencies other than the one in the current problem also have collected private information on their future models. In the sense, it is hardly convincing that collecting information on entertainers is entirely wrong.
Here, it is noteworthy whether the ad agency acquired the private information in a lawful or unlawful manner. It had collected the information through interviews with other entertainers or monthly magazine reporters. Conventionally, acquiring private information through dialogue with others or through media report has been acceptable. Yet illegal means, such as bugging or hidden cameras, are not accepted. If these means are permitted, the production of socially valuable information will be reduced.
Can it be called libel?
Some entertainers mentioned on the "Entertainer X-File" sued the ad agency and research firm of the problem for libel after the file was leaked out through the Internet. Then, should it really fall into libel? One needs to review the content of the file in order to determine whether it should be regarded as libel. The report contains such information as name, photo, current state and future vision, attraction, talent, self-management, and rumors about each entertainer. The most problematic part is the rumor section. Some rumors can severely damage the entertainer's reputation with content that can sound very unpleasant to reasonable people, In this regard, it can be subject to libel.
Yet it should be told first whether the private information in the file is true, before determining whether it is really subject to libel. If it is true, of course, it cannot be regarded as libel. In that case, the entertainers in the rumors had been unjustly overvalued as they did not fully disclose such negative information which would have decreased their earning potential. In addition, by correcting the wrong evaluation, those companies who tender contracts to entertainers can reduce potential losses and also gain profits.
In the meantime, when the information turns out to be untrue, it can severely damage an entertainer, and the general public can get the wrong impression of that entertainer. If the wrong information is made public with a malicious objective or is published even though the knowledge is not true, this falls into libel and should be punished accordingly. The punishment should be significant as such groundless rumors can damage the reputation of entertainers, which can lead to smaller contracts and reduced social wealth.
Yet, in the case highlighted in this article, it does not seem that the ad agency and research firm made the file public out of malice or opened it to the Internet knowing that it was untrue. There was no incentive for them to do such an act. Information once made public no longer belongs to only the ad agency. Such information also can be utilized by its competitors as well. Why did it leak the information even though there was a considerably greater advantage in solely owning the information? As for the research firm, if it disclosed the information, it would face a huge problem in terms of its contract with the agency. If the information found its way to other agencies, no one would want or need to contract that ad agency.
As seen above, extending the range of privacy protection has both positive and negative aspects. It can prevent the unlawful leakage of private information to society, and contribute to protecting personal reputations on one hand. On the other hand, it can reduce circulating private information to the rest of society. Is it totally desirable to have less information circulated in society? For society's sake, it would be more desirable to have more information circulated. In this sense, it cannot be conclusively stated that extending the range of privacy protection always is in the best interest of society.
Park Yang-Kyoon (Manager of PR team, Center for Free Enterprise, firstname.lastname@example.org)