by Peter M. Shane, Jacob E. Davis and Jacob E. Davis II Chair in Law, Moritz College of Law, The Ohio State University
* Author's Note: I had the privilege on April 4 of delivering the following remarks as part of a panel on "Creating the Politics of Privacy," a session of the capstone conference for Ohio State's 2013-14 series of campus-wide programs on the distinction between public and private.
America's cultural turn in recent decades toward a glorification of the private and a denigration of the public has coexisted with what quite obviously is a deterioration in privacy. As individuals, we have dramatically less capacity than in earlier decades to control information about even the most personal aspects of our lives. This is not just historical coincidence. The cultural turn to the "private" has actually hurt privacy.
What I mean by a cultural turn is that, for the last 35-ish years, U.S. law and politics have moved away from the public-regarding orientation of the New Deal and its programmatic outgrowths and toward the individualist orientation of Reaganite small-government conservatism. We can see these moves in a variety of ways that implicate the private/public distinction. For example, we know that public institutions, such as schools, simultaneously create both public value and private value. They help both to benefit society through an educated citizenry and to prepare individuals for economic self-sufficiency. Yet our public policy toward schools has increasingly emphasized only their private value as providing persuasive reasons for their support.
Likewise, private action simultaneously has both private and public impacts. What I do as an individual both serves my personal needs and gratifications and imposes externalities on others. Not all externalities are positive. Yet courts and politicians have increasingly resisted treating negative externalities as a sufficient justification for regulation. Supreme Court decisions limiting Congress' powers to keep guns away from schools or to provide federal remedies for domestic violence are perfect examples. The court's 2012 decision that Congress lacked power under the Commerce Clause to compel the private purchase of health insurance was based on legal arguments that earlier courts would have rejected out of hand.
The Snowden revelations about NSA activities have brought government access to online data into the public eye over the past year. Allegations that surveillance programs may have impacted American citizens have led to public outrage. In response, the president has promised to reform the U.S. government surveillance apparatus to “provide greater transparency to our surveillance activities and fortify the safeguards that protect the privacy of U.S. persons.”
Long before the Snowden revelations, enhancing the privacy of U.S. persons was the focus of less-visible efforts to reform the Electronic Communications Privacy Act (ECPA), a law enacted well before the Internet era that allows law enforcement access to a panoply of electronic information held by third-party information service providers without first obtaining a warrant.
In December 2013, more than 100,000 Americans signed an online petition calling on the Obama administration to support ECPA reform. Although a warm spring finally is emerging in Washington, D.C., the White House has remained silent as reform bills (e.g.,S. 607 and H.R. 1847) remain frozen in Congress.
President Obama announced this morning that he will propose legislation calling for significant changes in the NSA’s telephone metadata program. This is good news, indeed.
The enactment of these proposals would strike a much better balance between the interests of liberty and security. They would preserve the value of the NSA’s program in terms of protecting the national security, while at the same time providing much greater, and much needed, protection to individual privacy and civil liberties.
The proposals are based on recommendations made by the president’s five-member Review Group, of which I was a member. To understand why we came up with these suggestions, it is necessary first to understand how the program operates.
Under the telephone metadata program, which was created in 2006, telephone service companies like Sprint, Verizon and AT&T are required to turn over to the NSA, on an ongoing daily basis, huge quantities of telephone metadata involving the phone records of millions of Americans, none of whom are themselves suspected of anything.
Even though the program to-date has functioned properly, history teaches that there is always the risk of another J. Edgar Hoover or Richard Nixon.
Senator Rubio of Florida is now one of the strongest contenders in the GOP for president. He is qualified and likeable and thus far has a clean record on ethics. One or more of Rubio’s Senate colleagues also might have a shot at the nomination. There are other good candidates as well. And Republicans, if they can get their act together, have a very good chance of electing a president in 2016.
One of the most important things a new president will do is appoint judges, the job that our current president has been trying to do for the past five years. The president will need the advice and consent of the Senate to make these appointments, but courts need judges, and presidents and senators have an obligation to make sure vacancies on courts are filled.
And the place where senators should care most about filling judicial vacancies should be their own home states. The interests of constituents in access to judges and justice should be a priority over playing partisan politics.
And this is why, until recently, it usually was not a problem for the Senate to allow home state senators an informal veto—implemented through the so called “blue slip” process—over confirmation of judges in their own states. Senators might try to block nominees from other states with filibusters and other tactics, but would protect their own constituents by working out a deal with the White House for nomination and confirmation of an acceptable nominee in their state.