The D-Word: Dignity

Several months after joining the Commission as director of consumer protection, David Vladeck gave an interview to the New York Times, in which he invoked the d-word – dignity – four times. In describing his role at the Commission, he said, “I think there’s a huge dignity interest wrapped up in having somebody looking at your financial records when they have no business doing that. I think there is a dignity interest that needs to be protected when someone’s looking at, maybe, your prescription medications that you’re getting online. I don’t think the harm model that the Commission has used at times really captures those injuries.”26

Supporters of the harm-based approach felt deeply threatened by the idea that the FTC would use dignity as a case selection factor. Harm supporters reacted hysterically, labeling Vladeck’s views emotional, questionable, vague, nontraditional, and subjective. They warned of expanding liability, of influence from foreign legal interests, and so on. In critiquing Vladeck, harms-based supporters almost always put dignity in quotes, as if it were some Germanism. Even commission officials tried to soften the interpretation of Vladeck’s use of the word “dignity.”27

Maintaining dignity is a main reason why people seek privacy. Consider the lock on the bathroom or bedroom door as mechanisms that protect non-economic interests in shielding the naked body from observation. The Commission has taken action in several cases where business practices enabled spying into the home and the capture of images of people within their homes. Such spying does not cause an obvious economic harm to people, yet most people would support having the government defend against such intrusions.

Why would the idea of dignity be so alien to privacy? And if dignity means the idea of protecting a person’s honor or worth, why would the business community be so threatened by it?

27 Thumbs Down to Notice-and-Choice at FTC, But Firm Rules Not Planned, 11(76) WARREN’S WASHINGTON INTERNET DAILY, April 11, 2010.