Monthly Archives: September 2007

Quality demagoguery

Several recent announcements in Spain provide for some amusing and saddening analysis:

  1. The Government of Spanish PM Rodríguez Zapatero announced state aid for young people (under certain income level) to pay the rent on their house or apartment.
  2. Some time ago, they announced that landlords would be protected against defaulting tenants, by a state agency that would pay the landlord the amount owed by the tenant.
  3. The Andalusian regional government (ruled by the same party as Rodríguez Zapatero’s) has also recently announced they would “give away” flats for free to people earning less than €3,000 per month.

Aside from the fact that these are purely populist announcements, just in time for upcoming elections, they are yet another proof of the downright ineptitude of Rodríguez Zapatero:

1) and 2): The Prime Minister is a coward, covering up the housing problem in Spain with free money, rather than tackling the real problem. If rental prices are high and unaffordable for some, the solution is not for the Government to pay part of people’s rent.

The solution is quite simple: It’s a matter of supply and demand. Rental prices rise if supply of rental housing is low. The Government should take steps to reduce prices as a consequence of increased supply of rental apartments. How to increase supply? The answer: by making it attractive for apartment owners to feel inclined to rent their apartments out to people (many flats are unoccupied). How to persuade them? Simply, owners will feel confident to rent their property if they have the guarantee and assurance that defaulting tenants can be evicted immediately, in a matter of hours if necessary, and that any damage to their property will be paid for by the tenant.

Currently, tenants cannot be kicked out of an apartment even if they owe several months of rent. Spanish law sides with the defaulting party of the contract, rather than with the compliant party. The flat owner is unprotected and feels not compelled at all to rent out their property thus reducing the supply of rental housing in the market.

Subsidizing housing will not solve any problems; Its price is not affected. Sadly, the Spanish Government is unwilling to take the really necessary steps to avoid unaffordable prices, which are much harder to implement than a simple populist subsidy.

Government-paid rent for defaulting tenants is equally wrong: It is public money, given to the defaulting party of the rental contract, while the compliant party sees their property forcibly occupied by non-paying residents.

Finally, idea 3) is also utterly immoral, for it uses public money to pay for the housing of some people, for them to enjoy free housing, while others have to pay full price. Moreover, the group of people earning less than €3,000 per month is quite likely the vast majority of the population. Where will the Andalusian government obtain the funds to pay for housing to give away to over 70% of the population?

In summary, the three initiatives by Rodríguez Zapatero described above will only lead to:

  1. Increased dependency of people on the Government (people get accustomed to getting monetary help from the Government)
  2. Promoting irresponsible behavior (people get used to being bailed out by the Government when they do not pay their rent)
  3. Fattening of the Government, increased public spending, and increased tax collection, resulting from the Government’s very failure to face the real problems.

Exaggerated protection for privacy

Today I read on the news that Google promotes a global standard of privacy legislation across countries. A Google representative has met with the UNESCO to discuss the issue.

Clearly, for Google, privacy laws can represent a barrier for their business model. This is true for several similar organizations: Yahoo, Altavista, LinkedIn, Facebook and so many others whose business is to handle information, promote targeted advertisement or collect personal information to customize services for customers.

These companies are often criticized for paying little to no attention to privacy concerns of their customers and users. However, such criticism is flawed, as this article will show.

People and businesses alike have benefited immensely from the Internet, and some of the key Internet “utilities” making Internet extremely useful and attractive are precisely the services that those companies provide (whether free of charge or not).

The list of advantages is rarely disputed: efficient and fast communication, immediate access to large pools of information about just about any subject, the ability to find it, customized content to one’s liking.

One typical criticism of Google, Yahoo and others is their compilation, storage and use of information about their users, without the users’ knowledge or consent. Critics argue that these companies can read users’ email, can track usage patterns of given users, and in the end can control what people do on the Internet or their personal lives.

However, these are weak accusations, if closely examined: social and business interactions, whether on the Internet or in real life, inevitably imply that one party in the service exchange obtain some information about the other party. If I borrow a book from the library, the librarian sees what I am reading; when I buy produce in the supermarket, the cashier knows what I am eating; when talking with friends about every day life, we mutually exchange information about each other’s habits.

In other words: “privacy” is merely utopia.

Thanks to computers, information collected from such interactions can be stored and processed automatically. This is the only difference between Internet-age personal, business and social interactions and non-Internet interactions.

It is true that on the Internet, “privacy” is harder to maintain or assure. This is not, however, reason enough to introduce legislation that “protects” privacy. Why does privacy individuals have to be protected by state or national laws? The only effective measure to protect privacy is in the hands of the individual: It is up to individual human beings whether to share or not information about themselves with businesses or other people. Plenty of services nowadays require lots of private and personal information from people to enjoy or use those services, but people are not forced to use those services.

Everyone is free to decline using Google’s services. Blaming Google for collecting information about their users is ill-intentioned criticism. If a company publishes their privacy policy, anyone disagreeing with it is free to walk away from the company’s services. Life was possible before Google existed, and noone is forced to use Google or similar services.

Once we share our “private” information with others (on the Internet or outside), it is nearly impossible to control its use and dissemination by other. This is a fact everyone has to accept, however uncomfortable it may be.

Therefore, the privacy debate over on-line services is flimsy. Utopia cannot be achieved. Business models based on personal information processing would be impossible if privacy were to be preserved at all cost. On the other hand, while privacy is not to be ignored for the sake of business, the services and the benefits that those businesses have brought to the large public are worth downplaying privacy’s importance.

At the end of the day, it is nothing but a question of balance between an individual’s desired level of privacy and their desired level of interaction and interrelation with other people or with businesses. You can’t have your cake and eat it too.

Introducing privacy-protecting legislation might be useful if it truly thwarted fraud and identity theft attempts on people, but currently it does not. It only results in a burden and a headache to comply with, while providing no real value. People are no more protected by these regulations. In Spain, for instance, companies allocate money in their annual budgets to pay for the foreseen fines they are going to be imposed for non-compliance with personal data protection laws. They have realized it is much cheaper to pay the fine than to comply with the law. Clearly this means the law is useless in protecting data, and serves only as a fine-collecting instrument for the Government.

Google is therefore right to advocate for minimum global standards in privacy protection [Reference]:

  • The global aspect is imperative: In a global Internet, any regulation short of being global is useless. We’ve seen how phishing, spam, and other plagues flourish through the cracks of cross-country legislation.
  • The minimum aspect is key as well: Governments should only intervene to prevent abusive conduct, and should refrain from trying to protecting people as a whole on every particular issue. As I pointed out earlier, privacy is first and foremost a personal issue, and it is best protected from that personal domain. Legislation should concentrate on a minimum set of requirements, and it should define clear, hard sanctions for offenders.

In their current form, privacy and data protection laws are yet another bureaucratic bad idea born out of good intentions, implementing a bad approach to the problem.

Bravo for Rosa Díez

Rosa Díez, a politician in the Spanish Socialist Party (PSOE), shares the opinion that terrorism must be defeated, and negotiation with criminals is not acceptable. This was also the official position of PSOE until recently. Some PSOE politicians, like other parties’ politicians, have been killed by ETA (the criminals band called “basque separatists” by the BBC calls, otherwise denominated as “terrorist” by the Spanish Government, the UN, the USA, and the EU).

This woman, Ms. Díez, has been the target of an assassination attempt as well, but was luckily uninjured. She has fought from and with the PSOE to end the lack of freedom in the Basque Country, imposed by ETA terrorists and their friends (Batasuna and others). That task requires that the source of terror is defeated and eliminated, by means of strong social rejection, financial exhaustion, and police activity against ETA and its supporting environment. This is the absolute opposite to the ill-conceived tactic of negotiation with a criminal.

However, since Mr. Rodríguez Zapatero became the PSOE secretary general, all efforts in the PSOE to defeat ETA have been progressively waning. They have taken the road of negotiation with criminals in the hope they would voluntarily end their criminals acts of extortion, killings, kidnapping, destruction, and most importantly, restraining freedom of those they disagree with. On the path to implementing this strategy, Rodríguez Zapatero has replaced key, valued politicians in his party, who disagreed with the negotiation strategy, and who backed the strategy of defeating ETA. As Spanish prime minister, he has also forced key figures of the judicial system out of their positions, for their hard stand in favour of the strategy to defeat ETA.

Rosa Díez, however, is one socialist who was still in the PSOE, and still defending that there is nothing to negotiate with ETA. She has been an outspoken critic of the current strategy followed by the PSOE and the Government of Rodríguez Zapatero.

For doing so, she has been insulted by her own party colleagues. The PSOE has accused her of changing sides, to stand along the opposition on the issue of ETA.

The PSOE are proving to be nothing but a load of cynics for treating Rosa Díez like that: It is the majority of the PSOE who has changed their stance on ETA in the last few years. Ever since ETA has existed and prior to Rodríguez Zapatero‘s Government, all regimes and parties in office, including a 12-year rule by the PSOE, have tried to defeat ETA, never initiating a “dialogue” or negotiation with ETA, as Rodríguez Zapatero prefers to do. Brief negotiations between Government and ETA took place under Suárez, González and Aznar. These prime ministers broke off talks once ETA’s unwillingness to surrender was obvious. On the other hand, Rodríguez Zapatero initiated talks without a cease-fire or any other sign from ETA, and continued talks while the criminals continued to kill.

Therefore, it is not Rosa Díez who has changed, but the rest of the PSOE.

Now, (end of August 2007), Rosa Díez has decided to abandon the PSOE, for it is no longer a party interested in defending the freedom of people and defeating ETA, but has rather turned to talking with ETA, while ETA continues to arm itself, to extort people in the Basque Country and outside, and to kill (ETA killed three people since Prime Minister Rodríguez Zapatero came in office and while he supported talks with the criminals).

The PSOE has only had words of disdain and insult for their ex-colleague. As always. when confronted with differing opinions, the PSOE is only able to attack their opponent, but never able to defend their own ideals. Nice proof of their pompous 2004 announcement that they’d bring “tolerance” and “understanding” to Spanish politics.

Rosa Díez deserves a great deal of respect from everyone, for her efforts towards establishing a proper anti-terrorism policy and strategy in the Government. She has announced she will run with a new party in the upcoming general election. Let us hope voters choose Rosa Díez among the socialist alternatives (the new party and the PSOE).