Monday, October 22, 2007

A Surreal Day at Ameritech, a few years ago.

Originally posted to my Yahoo 360 blog on Wednesday April 25, 2007 - 03:47pm (CDT)

Ah, memories ...

I'm reading a post entitled "Constructing a mnemonic circuit using stone knives and bearskins" at GlobalPov (to which I posted a response) and a delightful incident immediately comes to mind. Some years back, I was being stalked by a psychotic ex-girlfriend, and oh, the wonderful questions that one often gets to hear from those who should know better, when one says that. "What do you do to these girls, Joseph?" Notice that when women get stalked by their ex-boyfriends, you don't see such a question being asked of them. What did I do to her?

I became part of her delusion. She became convinced that a certain celebrity was plotting her assassination, I asked the forbidden question "what makes you think that", and paranoiacs do not handle skepticism well. There are some people who put on a great performance and seem very sane and stable when you first meet them, but then one day, you learn better, and oh dear G-d, did I learn better. Ever see "Fatal Attraction"?

I moved and then moved again, being as meticulous as mathematicians and engineers tend to be as I went to each and every location that I could think of where my personal information was stored, telling them about what was going on, and really, just about anything that leaves one's door splattered with blood does tend to get people's attention, as it certainly did mine. Everywhere I went, I was assured that those working there understood the situation and that my personal information would not be divulged, and almost all who said this kept their word. But one only needs one exception, just one, for information to start circulating.

A few weeks of misguided comfort later, I discovered that my brand new and supposedly confidential address was, once more, being circulated to the junk mail senders, when I noticed that the junk mail was appearing with my personal name affixed. I tracked down those who sent the mail, asked them where they got my name, and then tracked down those people, who in turn got it from another group of people ... and following the trail, eventually found my way back to Ameritech, who had assured me that my address would not be given out! I was, to say the least, curious about that, especially because they knew about the death threats. "Guys, why did you do that and what happened to your word", I wanted to know.

What I had asked of them and what they had agreed to, going into some detail as to the manner of their agreement, was to set my account so that my phone number would be publicly available but not my street address. I would not do that today, having learned how fond some netizens are of responding to online political disagreements with obscene phone calls placed at odd hours, but in those days I had just one lunatic to worry about, and I thought that I could survive an odd phone call or two. (A few shots from a .38 would have been a different matter). Like a lot of people, I had old friends that I had lost contact with who I wanted to hear from again, and if they came into town, I wanted them to be able to be able to get in touch, back in those days before webpages were invented. This was all explained to the Ameritech representative, who then suggested the very type of account I got and said that everything was taken care of, which made what had then followed all the more interesting. "So guys, what's the deal?"

What the deal was, was that when they said they wouldn't divulge my street address, they had their fingers crossed behind their backs. They had a policy on their books that held that if the phone number was being released, then the address could be sold to telemarketers and the like, and that there was no need to inform customers as to the existence of this policy. They then sold my personal information, and even after I made all of my information (supposedly) publicly unavailable, continued selling it until, thoroughly and justifiably enraged by what was occuring as well as by the fact that I was successfully tracked down using the information sold (and got to move again), I called up somebody's supervisor and screamed at him until he agreed to get his company to behave itself, and the squeaky wheel finally got some grease.

A lot of libertarian-leaning people have some very romantic ideas about what the free market will do, ideas that reality seems to have little impact on. I posted about this elsewhere, and was amazed at the people who would write in to defend the company, one idiot in particular writing in to say that no, I hadn't shouted at the supervisor - and no, he wasn't from Ameritech, so how would he know? He just knew, that was all. But the best came from somebody who shall remain unnamed who insisted that Ameritech had the legal right to do as it did, because when I got them to agree to not give out my address to anybody, I didn't get them to stipulate that "everybody" included telemarketers. "So, in other words, for the agreement to be binding, I have to have seperate agreements for every single possible subset of everybody?", I asked, absolutely incredulous. Apparently so, and here's an interesting number for you to crank out on your calculator - at the rate of one per second, how long would I have needed to list all possible subsets of the first 100 people). Give you a hint - that's two raised to the one hundredth power seconds, and when you calculate how many years that is, you'lll find that it is some orders of magnitude larger than the expected length of time before the heat death of the universe. As inefficient as Ameritech might have been, I suspect that they might have been able to make a sale in slightly less time. What our far right-wing friend was trying to offer as a reasonable demand to make of the customer wishing to opt out and was claiming to be a matter of law, was simply not in the realm of physical possibility, which I guess was the real point. To leave the illusion of respecting the individual's right to opt out, but redefining that right on terms that would render it meaningless, preserving a little bit of the Neo-conservative free-for-all that a once reasonably orderly society was degenerating into, in this and so many other ways.

G-d forbid that a business should have to honor its commitments, right?

These were the old days and there was no Web, or at least most of us didn't know about it, yet, so the information died there and the worst that came out of all of this, in the end, aside from the cost of all of that relocating, was the memory of some truly assinine discussions, but if such an incident happened to somebody today? Even after Ameritech or somebody else stopped giving out the information, it would still be out on those sites, and being copied onto others. How, on these terms, is somebody who finds himself in the situation I did back then, supposed to get his life back? Even if one should choose to never have a social life, which is about the only way of ensuring that one will never get to know a psychopath - are we to all refrain from posting anything that some lunatic, somewhere, might get violently angry about, knowing that there is now a cottage industry devoted to helping stalkers find their victims? Think about it. What legitimate use is there for a site of this nature? If somebody really wants to be found or really wants to share something about himself, creating a webpage with or without contact information is easy and one need not even pay for the hosting, as there are stable providers who will host one's site for free: Geocities, Tripod, Angelfire and Bravenet come to mind, to say nothing of Myspace, Blogger et al. What a site like Spock is doing then, is helping its users find those who don't wish to be found and get personal information about them that they don't want to give, and if they don't wish to be found or they don't wish to let others know something about themselves, isn't that their right? What good is a right that others are left free to trample?

The fact that some of our ideologue friends don't seem to get is that privacy isn't just a luxury, it isn't even just a right, it is at times an absolute necessity. There are unstable people out in the world and there is no good way to ensure that one will not run into them, but at the very least one should have the legal right to insist that they not be given too much assistance as they go looking for a map to one's front door, and I dispute both the sanity and the decency of anybody who would argue otherwise. Let's be serious. I've said it before and I'll say it again. The Internet needs responsible governmental regulation, and it needs it today.