Defining “privacy” is a legal and philosophical nightmare. Few concepts engender more definitional controversies and catfights. As someone who is passionate about his own personal privacy — but also highly skeptical of top-down governmental attempts to regulate and/or protect it — I continue to be captivated by the intellectual wrangling that has taken place over the definition of privacy. Here are some thoughts from a wide variety of scholars that make it clear just how frustrating this endeavor can be:
- “Perhaps the most striking thing about the right to privacy is that nobody seems to have any very clear idea what it is.” – Judith Jarvis Thomson, “The Right to Privacy,” in Philosophical Dimensions of Privacy: An Anthology, 272, 272 (Ferdinand David Schoeman ed., 1984).
- privacy is “exasperatingly vague and evanescent.” – Arthur Miller, The Assault on Privacy: Computers, Data Banks, and Dossiers, 25 (1971).
- “[T]he concept of privacy is infected with pernicious ambiguities.” – Hyman Gross, The Concept of Privacy, 42 N.Y.U. L. REV. 34, 35 (1967).
- “Attempts to define the concept of ‘privacy’ have generally not met with any success.” – Colin Bennett, Regulating Privacy: Data Protection and Public Policy In Europe and the United States, 25 (1992).
- “When it comes to privacy, there are many inductive rules, but very few universally accepted axioms.” - David Brin, The Transparent Society: Will Technology Force Us To Choose Between Privacy and Freedom? 77 (1998).
- “Privacy is a value so complex, so entangled in competing and contradictory dimensions, so engorged with various and distinct meanings, that I sometimes despair whether it can be usefully addressed at all.” – Robert C. Post, Three Concepts of Privacy, 89 GEO. L.J. 2087, 2087 (2001).
- “[privacy] can mean almost anything to anybody.” – Fred H. Cate & Robert Litan, Constitutional Issues in Information Privacy, 9 Mich. Telecomm. & Tech. L. Rev. 35, 37 (2002).
- privacy has long been a “conceptual jungle” and a “concept in disarray.” “[T]he attempt to locate the ‘essential’ or ‘core’ characteristics of privacy has led to failure.” – Daniel J. Solove, Understanding Privacy 196, 8 (2008).
- “Privacy has really ceased to be helpful as a term to guide policy in the United States.” - Woodrow Hartzog, quoted in Cord Jefferson, Spies Like Us: We’re All Big Brother Now, Gizmodo, Sept. 27, 2012.
- “for most consumers and policymakers, privacy is not a rational topic. It’s a visceral subject, one on which logical arguments are largely wasted.” – Larry Downes, A Rational Response to the Privacy “Crisis,” Cato Institute, Policy Analysis No. 716 (Jan. 7, 2013), at 6.
In my new Harvard Journal of Law & Public Policy article, “The Pursuit of Privacy in a World Where Information Control is Failing” I build on these insights to argue that:
- precisely because privacy has always been a highly subjective philosophical concept;
- and is also a constantly morphing notion that evolves as societal attitudes adjust to new cultural and technological realities;
- America may never be able to achieve a coherent fixed definition of the term or determine when it constitutes a formal right outside of some narrow contexts.
That doesn’t mean the privacy isn’t profoundly important to many of us, but privacy is, first and foremost, an exercise of personal determination and personal responsibility. To some extent, we have to make our own privacy in this world. In this sense, we can liken it to our right to pursue happiness. Here’s how I put it in Part I of my Harvard JLPP article:
Even if agreement over the scope of privacy rights proves elusive, however, everyone would likely agree that citizens have the right to pursue privacy. In this sense, we might think about the pursuit of privacy the same way we think about the pursuit of happiness. Recall the memorable line from America’s Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” Consider the importance of that qualifying phrase—“and the pursuit of”—before the mention of the normative value of happiness. America’s Founders obviously felt happiness was an important value, but they did not elevate it to a formal positive right alongside life, liberty, physical property, or even freedom of speech.
This framework provides a useful way of thinking about privacy. Even if we cannot agree whether we have a right to privacy, or what the scope of any particular privacy right should be, the right to pursue it should be as uncontroversial as the right to pursue happiness. In fact, pursing privacy is probably an important element of achieving happiness for most citizens. Almost everyone needs some time and space to be free with their own thoughts or to control personal information or secrets that they value. But that does not make it any easier to define the nature of privacy as a formal legal right, or any easier to enforce it, even if a satisfactory conception of privacy could be crafted to suit every context.
The most stable and widely accepted privacy rights in the United States have long been those that are tethered to unambiguous tangible or physical rights, such as rights in body and property, especially the sanctity of the home. Moreover, these rights have been focused on limiting the power of state actors, not private parties. By contrast, privacy claims premised on intangible or psychological harms have found far less support, and those claims have been particularly limited for private actors relative to the government. All this will likely remain the case for online privacy. Importantly, if privacy is enshrined as a positive right even in narrowly drawn contexts, it imposes obligations on the government to secure that right. These obligations create corresponding commitments and costs that must be taken into account since government regulation always entails tradeoffs.
Therefore, even as America struggles to reach political consensus over the scope of privacy rights in the information age, it makes sense to find methods and mechanisms—most of which will lie outside of the law—that can help citizens cope with social and technological changes that affect their privacy. Part III will outline some of the ways citizens can pursue and achieve greater personal privacy.
I fully realize that this way of thinking about privacy leaves many challenging questions at the margin and I also understand how it will be unsatisfactory to those who view privacy as a “dignity right” that trumps all other values and considerations. But, to reiterate, what I am suggesting here is that we will likely never be able to achieve a coherent fixed definition of the term or determine when it constitutes a formal right outside of some narrow contexts (such as for sensitive health or financial information, where the potential harms of collection, sharing, and use are more tangible). The primary reason for this is that privacy primary comes down to assertions about “harms” that are primarily psychological in character. But precisely because such asserted harms (1) lack a tangible/physical/monetary nature and (2) also can come into conflict with other liberty rights (especially the right to freely gather information and speak about it; i.e., First Amendment rights), it makes it more difficult to classify psychological “harms” as harms at all.
I feel the same way about concepts like “safety” and “security.” Who among us doubts these values and goals are important? As the father of two young digital natives, I am living a constant struggle to mentor my kids and ensure they have safe and healthy online interactions. But that doesn’t mean I think anyone in this world — including my own children — has an amorphous “right to safety.” What they do have a right to is not to be harmed by others in their online interactions. Where things become sticky, however, is when some child safety advocates adopt an extremely expansive view of what constitutes “harm” in this context and suggest that hearing a single dirty word or seeing a fleeting dirty image somehow irrevocably “harms” their mental well-being and development, or perhaps just their personal morality. (I have written about this here in dozens of essays through the years such as this one on “The Problem of Proportionality in Debates about Online Privacy and Child Safety” as well in longer papers, such as my recent law review article about, “Technopanics, Threat Inflation, and the Danger of an Information Technology Precautionary Principle.”)
While I appreciate the diverse beliefs and values that drives sensitivities about potentially objectionable online content, it is an entirely different matter when one claims “rights” and actionable “harms” in this context. It means that politics will essentially answer what are fundamentally deeply personal “eye of the beholder” questions. It is better, I believe to educate and empower citizens about safe and sensible online interactions and then let them determine what works best for them. Again, whether we are talking about safety or privacy, this model relies upon a certain amount of personal (and parental) responsibility.
To be sure, real harms exist and, at times, law will need to be brought in to right certain wrongs. For example, in the online safety context I favor strong penalties for anyone attempting predatory behavior or extreme forms of incessant harassment. In the privacy context, we’ll still need laws to deal with identity/data theft and certain uses of highly sensitive health and financial information. Outside of those narrow contexts, however, it is better to let people define their own online experiences free of top-down, one-size-fits-all regulatory enactments that attempt to make those determinations for all of us. To reiterate, we all have the right to pursue the objectives we care about–safety, privacy, or just happiness more generally–according to our own value systems. But we should be careful about elevating such amorphous concepts to the level of “rights” and then expecting the State to enforce one set of values and choices on a diverse citizenry.