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Going Down the Road | The Nation

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Going Down the Road

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When I was a mere tyke, my momma taught me at the supper table that if I wanted something, I shouldn't reach across and grab it, but ask for it--and ask politely, too. I wonder if bankers had mommas. I wonder the same about all the corporate chieftains who now routinely reach out and grab our privacy, without so much as a "pretty please." They are blithely stiff-arming the Constitution, surreptitiously raking up every shred of the most personal information they can find on each of us and feeding this raw tonnage into the maws of their voracious mega-computers, which then spit out our privacy bit by bit to anyone and everyone who'll pay for it.

About the Author

Jim Hightower
Jim Hightower has been called America's favorite populist. He's been editor of The Texas Observer, president of the...

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This old American democratic tradition already has deep support at the grassroots.

People are wriggling free of the fetters of corporate culture.

Oh, say the bankers, this is all legit. Didn't you know that Congress passed the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act in 1999? Sure enough, GLB (which I pronounce GLUB for its drowning effect on privacy rights) expressly authorizes them to peddle our privacy. For example, a financial conglomerate like Citigroup (which led the lobbying effort) can hand your health records from their Travelers insurance subsidiary to their Citibank officers, or give your Citibank records to their Salomon Smith Barney investment house--without even asking for your OK. And they can sell all of your records to anyone as long as they have notified you sometime in the past about their "privacy policy," which usually is written in such indecipherable legalese that you either ignore it or pass out trying to read it. Hey, the bankers retort, if you don't like the game, GLB magnanimously allows you to "opt out" by taking your time to contact someone, somewhere, deep in your bank's bureaucracy.

Excuse me, but since bankers don't exactly advertise their intrusive practices, most folks are totally unaware of what's happening. Thus banks get few protests and GLB lets them interpret each person's silence as full permission. And, excuse me again, but even if people were explicitly informed about opt-out, the language and the spirit of the Fourth Amendment is as clear as my momma's early instructions to me: Ask before you grab. If you want to compile a computerized dossier on me and sell any part of my personal life--the burden is on you to get my informed, written consent in advance every time you do it. It's called "opt-in."

Sinking the GLUB

A strong believer in the Fourth Amendment, Charlene Nelson, learned last year that a cabal of bankers, legislators and the governor of her state of North Dakota were trying to undo a good state privacy law requiring banks to get permission from customers before selling their financial data. The cabal claimed that this pesky permission provision had to be altered to bring North Dakota into compliance with GLB. Nelson, a mother of three young boys who lives west of Fargo, considers herself a conservative; she had never been much of a political activist, but she knew political horse manure when she sniffed it--and this stank.

To start with, GLB does not require states to conform--indeed, it specifically allows states to provide more privacy protection for their citizens. Offended by the lobbyists' lie, Nelson wrote to her legislators, assuming they would respect the wishes of citizens like her. They didn't. "I was just stunned when it passed," she says, and she went from angry to activist. About a dozen friends and neighbors met, came up with the punchy acronym POP (Protect Our Privacy), decided to petition for a binding referendum to reverse the legislators' action and set out to collect signatures to put the issue on the ballot.

The Powers That Be scoffed, believing that these were rank amateurs and asserting that North Dakotans didn't care about the privacy change. But POP hit the streets, the phones and talk-radio shows, creating quite a stink of their own. They rallied hundreds of volunteers to collect signatures and shocked the cognoscenti by getting more than enough signers in only six weeks--unheard of in North Dakota. Along the way, they also built a right-left coalition ranging from the Constitution Party to labor unions, from the Farm Bureau to the ACLU.

Now the chase was on, and the Big Boys resorted to their usual arsenal of money, lies and raw ugliness. "All we had was grassroots folks and the issue," says Nelson, who directed POP's campaign from her kitchen table.

A Bridge Too Far

The bankers put up $150,000 (five times what POP could collect), hired professional flacks and launched a television assault. First they tried to buffalo voters with the odd assertion that North Dakota banks don't sell their customers' information, so there's no need to worry. North Dakota might be a rural state, but the people aren't rubes--if bankers don't plan to sell people's privacy, why did they change the law? Oh, right, conceded the bankers, who then shifted to the old ruse that passage of the referendum would cause corporations to flee, jobs to be lost and the state to dry up and blow away. This ridiculous pitch featured a TV ad that pictured a bridge leading into the state. Suddenly, a big stone wall moves across the screen, sealing the state border, and a metal shield rises in front of the bridge declaring: "CLOSED for business!"

As a last resort, the lobbyists turned on Nelson herself, assailing her as some sort of right-wing wacko. The amazing thing is that the bankers and their politicos thought any of these ploys would work. As a writer for the Fargo Forum put it, "In the end, the biggest wall was the one blocking the bankers' view of the electorate." Voters gave them a drubbing, supporting POP's referendum by 73 to 27 percent in the June 11 election.

There is a simmering anger all across America about the invasion of our privacy. Neither of the two big national parties has had the gumption or guts to take up the issue, because it means taking on their powerhouse corporate contributors. But progressives everywhere should grab it and go. Not only do huge numbers support the opt-in approach (80-90 percent in various polls), but this is a realignment issue that cuts across every political line.

Charlene Nelson says she and the other POP-ers got a "crash course in civics," and she's willing to share the lessons she learned in her kitchen table rebellion. So contact her at r.cnelson@juno.com.

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