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Home > Privacy and Business > Online Privacy > The Vanishing Difference Between Online and Off

The Vanishing Difference Between Online and Off

The online world is regarded by many as new and uncharted territory. It is natural and not surprising that so many seek order and control, by government regulation if necessary, in the online world.

The online and offline worlds are collapsing into one, however, and probably never were as far apart as people might think. Businesses have collected information for many, many years, and they have moved that information onto computers and into databases as those technologies have become available. The Internet has only given a new public face to information technologies and information practices that have been developing and evolving "offline" for years.

Today, more and more transactions that used to take place offline are being moved online. Already, telephones, radios, and devices that go into our homes, offices, and automobiles are being built to connect to the Internet. The differences between the online and offline worlds are growing increasingly blurry.

For this reason, it is a mistake to think that the "offline" and "online" worlds should be treated differently. Any way of addressing online privacy should address offline privacy the same way.

The offline harms to privacy that are currently recognized — the privacy torts that Warren and Brandeis wrote about — can certainly be committed in the online environment and, just as everything else online, they sometimes can be committed more quickly and dramatically. But the nature of the harms — the invasion of people’s privacy interests — does not depend on the medium that causes the harm.

If policies were to artificially select between information practices "offline" and those "online," this would create a distinction that does not exist in the modern world — and certainly will not exist in the future world. Such an artificial distinction would unnecessarily drive transactions toward or away from the Internet. No policy should prefer the offline world or the online world over the other. Businesses and consumers should find the medium that satisfies them without government policy driving their preferences.


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[updated 9/1/00]

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