The power of choice

February 29, 2008 at 10:04 pm 4 comments

Over the past few days, the topic of choice has coincidentally come up several times. I mean real choice, not something compulsory dressed up as choice.

My favourite example of “no choice” choice is the I-94W form. People from Visa Waiver countries, such as New Zealand, fill this up on arrival in USA. It’s got a beauty in the fine print, “I hereby waive any rights to review of appeal of an immigration officer’s determination as to my admissibility, or to contest, other than on the basis of an application for asylum, any action in deportation.” Why have laws that give people rights and then ask them to sign a form giving up those rights as a pre-condition to accepting the form? Do I really have a choice?

No, the kind of choice I’m talking about is the personal details that people choose to disclose in social networking sites. People choosing to get chipped to avoid the hassle of carrying a security card to enter a work site. The kind of free choice associated with appearing on a reality show or those mid-morning talk shows.

The point is that if these people had no choice, if a thing is mandatory, then there would be a massive violation of their privacy. So, consideration of choice is central to privacy.

That makes it a target for subversion, such as the US example. There are also issues of informed choice, applying one’s mind, and allowing for people to make different choices.

The centrality of choice was highlighted in the The Economist’s Special Report on identity, “Identity Parade.” The article makes the important point that “The hard lesson for governments is that citizens will adopt technology when it is both optional and beneficial to them, but resist it strenuously when it is compulsory, no matter how sensible it may seem.”

An example used in the article is the choice people make for the sake of convenience when entering Dubai, “Ask the average traveller from a developed country whether he would like to be fingerprinted by an authoritarian regime and have the results stored indefinitely in its computer, and he will probably say no. But when such procedures save time, scruples go out of the window.”

Making something compulsory triggers a mindset of overcoming a hurdle. Making it opt-in gets people making conscious or unconscious evaluation of costs, benefits, and risks.

And that is the power of choice.

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Entry filed under: government, personal_info, privacy, strategy, USA.

UK: selling your browsing data NZ, Aus: Limit fingerprints

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