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: Continue reading →
Let’s talk about “permissionless innovation.” We all believe in it, right? Or do we? What does it really mean? How far are we willing to take it? What are its consequences? What is its opposite? How should we balance them?
What got me thinking about these questions was a recent essay over at The Umlaut by my Mercatus Center colleague Eli Dourado entitled, “‘Permissionless Innovation’ Offline as Well as On.” He opened by describing the notion of permissionless innovation as follows:
In Internet policy circles, one is frequently lectured about the wonders of “permissionless innovation,” that the Internet is a global platform on which college dropouts can try new, unorthodox methods without the need to secure authorization from anyone, and that this freedom to experiment has resulted in the flourishing of innovative online services that we have observed over the last decade.
Eli goes on to ask, “why it is that permissionless innovation should be restricted to the Internet. Can’t we have this kind of dynamism in the real world as well?”
That’s a great question, but let’s ponder an even more fundamental one: Does anyone really believe in the ideal of “permissionless innovation”? Is there anyone out there who makes a consistent case for permissionless innovation across the technological landscape, or is it the case that a fair degree of selective morality is at work here? That is, people love the idea of “permissionless innovation” until they find reasons to hate it — namely, when it somehow conflicts with certain values they hold dear. Continue reading →
I’m excited to announce that the Minnesota Journal of Law, Science & Technology has just published the final version of my 78-page paper on, “Technopanics, Threat Inflation, and the Danger of an Information Technology Precautionary Principle.” My thanks to the excellent team at the Journal, who made the final product a much better paper than the one I turned into them! I poured my heart and soul into this article and hope others find it useful. It’s the culmination of all my work on technopanics and threat inflation in information policy debates, much of which I originally developed here in various essays through the years. In coming weeks, I hope to elaborate on themes I develop in the paper in a couple of posts here.
The paper can be found on the Minn. J. L. Sci. & Tech. website or on SSRN. I’ve also embedded it below in a Scribd reader. Here’s the executive summary: Continue reading →
A couple of folks have asked me why I’ve gone silent over the past few months and posted so little here on the TLF. Simply put, I over-committed myself to one law review after another. I had submitted a few working papers to law reviews late last year and then was simultaneously approached by a few others who were soliciting specific pieces. And I said ‘yes’ to everybody! That’s meant zero time for casual blogging of any sort. I hope to get back on the beat soon, but I still am putting the wraps on two of these, so it may be awhile before I get back to blogging regularly. Anyway, to the extent anyone is interested in what I am working on, here are my next seven law review articles, plus a book chapter:
- “Technopanics, Threat Inflation, and the Danger of an Information Technology Precautionary Principle,” [14 Minnesota Journal of Law, Science & Technology, Winter 2013]
- “The Perils of Classifying Social Media Platforms as Public Utilities,” [forthcoming, The CommLaw Conspectus: Journal of Communications Law and Policy, Spring 2013]
- “Uncreative Destruction: The Misguided War on Vertical Integration in the Information Economy,” with Brent Skorup, [65 Federal Communications Law Journal, April 2013]
- “The Pursuit of Privacy in a World Where Information Control Is Failing,” [35 Harvard Journal of Law & Public Policy, 2013]
- “Benefit-Cost Analysis in Online Safety & Digital Privacy Debates,” [forthcoming, George Mason University Law Review]
- “A History of Cronyism & Capture in the Information Technology Sector,” with Brent Skorup, [forthcoming Mercatus Working Paper, February 2013. Looking for a home for this one, possibly in a poly sci or history journal instead of a law review.]
- “Internet Policy Paradigms: The First Half Century of Internet Governance Visions” [Looking for a home for this one, too, but still far from done with it.]
- [Book chapter] “A Framework for Responding to Online Safety Risks,” [forthcoming book chapter in: Youth And The Internet – Regulating Online Opportunities And Risks (Springer Press, 2013)]
The number of major cyberlaw and information tech policy books being published annually continues to grow at an astonishing pace, so much so that I have lost the ability to read and review all of them. In past years, I put together end-of-year lists of important info-tech policy books (here are the lists for 2008, 2009, 2010, and 2011) and I was fairly confident I had read just about everything of importance that was out there (at least that was available in the U.S.). But last year that became a real struggle for me and this year it became an impossibility. A decade ago, there was merely a trickle of Internet policy books coming out each year. Then the trickle turned into a steady stream. Now it has turned into a flood. Thus, I’ve had to become far more selective about what is on my reading list. (This is also because the volume of journal articles about info-tech policy matters has increased exponentially at the same time.)
So, here’s what I’m going to do. I’m going to discuss what I regard to be the five most important titles of 2012, briefly summarize a half dozen others that I’ve read, and then I’m just going to list the rest of the books out there. I’ve read most of them but I have placed an asterisk next to the ones I haven’t. Please let me know what titles I have missed so that I can add them to the list. (Incidentally, here’s my compendium of all the major tech policy books from the 2000s and here’s the running list of all my book reviews.)
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The precautionary principle generally states that new technologies should be restricted or heavily regulated until they are proven absolutely safe. In other words, out of an abundance of caution, the precautionary principle holds that it is “better to be safe than sorry,” regardless of the costs or consequences. The problem with that, as Kevin Kelly reminded us in his 2010 book, What Technology Wants, is that because “every good produces harm somewhere… by the strict logic of an absolute Precautionary Principle no technologies would be permitted.” The precautionary principle is, in essence, the arch-enemy of progress and innovation. Progress becomes impossible when experimentation and trade-offs are considered unacceptable.
I was reminded of that fact while reading this recent piece by Marc Scribner in the Washington Post, “Driverless Cars Are on the Way. Here’s How Not to Regulate Them.” Scribner highlights the efforts of the D.C. Council to regulate autonomous vehicles. A new bill introduced by Council member Mary Cheh (D-Ward 3) proposes several preemptive regulations before driverless autos would be allowed on the streets of Washington. Scribner summarizes the provisions of the bill and their impact: Continue reading →
Psychologists Daniel Simons and Christopher Chabris had an interesting editorial in The Wall Street Journal this weekend asking, “Do Our Gadgets Really Threaten Planes?” They conducted an online survey of 492 American adults who have flown in the past year and found that “40% said they did not turn their phones off completely during takeoff and landing on their most recent flight; more than 7% left their phones on, with the Wi-Fi and cellular communications functions active. And 2% pulled a full Baldwin, actively using their phones when they weren’t supposed to.”
Despite the widespread prevalence of such law-breaking activity, planes aren’t falling from the sky and yet the Federal Aviation Administration continues to enforce the rule prohibiting the use of digital gadgets during certain times during flight. “Why has the regulation remained in force for so long despite the lack of solid evidence to support it?” Simons and Chabris ask. They note:
Human minds are notoriously overzealous “cause detectors.” When two events occur close in time, and one plausibly might have caused the other, we tend to assume it did. There is no reason to doubt the anecdotes told by airline personnel about glitches that have occurred on flights when they also have discovered someone illicitly using a device. But when thinking about these anecdotes, we don’t consider that glitches also occur in the absence of illicit gadget use. More important, we don’t consider how often gadgets have been in use when flights have been completed without a hitch. Our survey strongly suggests that there are multiple gadget violators on almost every flight.
That’s all certain true, but what actually motivated this ban — and has ensured its continuation despite a lack of evidence it is needed to diminish technological risk — is the precautionary principle. As the authors correct note: Continue reading →
I have always found it strange that the ACLU speaks with two voices when it comes to user empowerment as a response to government regulation of the Internet. That is, when responding to government efforts to regulate the Internet for online safety or speech purposes, the ACLU stresses personal responsibility and user empowerment as the first-order response. But as soon as the conversation switches to online advertising and data collection, the ACLU suggests that people are basically sheep who can’t possibly look out for themselves and, therefore, increased Internet regulation is essential. They’re not the only ones adopting this paradoxical position. In previous essays I’ve highlighted how both EFF and CDT do the same thing. But let me focus here on ACLU.
Writing today on the ACLU “Free Future” blog, ACLU senior policy analyst Jay Stanley cites a new paper that he says proves “the absurdity of the position that individuals who desire privacy must attempt to win a technological arms race with the multi-billion dollar internet-advertising industry.” The new study Stanley cites says that “advertisers are making it impossible to avoid online tracking” and that it isn’t paternalistic for government to intervene and regulate if the goal is to enhance user privacy choices. Stanley wholeheartedly agrees. In this and other posts, he and other ACLU analysts have endorsed greater government action to address this perceived threat on the grounds that, in essence, user empowerment cannot work when it comes to online privacy.
Again, this represents a very different position from the one that ACLU has staked out and brilliantly defended over the past 15 years when it comes to user empowerment as the proper and practical response to government regulation of objectionable online speech and pornography. For those not familiar, beginning in the mid-1990s, lawmakers started pursuing a number of new forms of Internet regulation — direct censorship and mandatory age verification were the primary methods of control — aimed at curbing objectionable online speech. In case after case, the ACLU rose up to rightly defend our online liberties against such government encroachment. (I was proud to have worked closely with many former ACLU officials in these battles.) Most notably, the ACLU pushed back against the Communications Decency Act of 1996 (CDA) and the Child Online Protection Act of 1998 (COPA) and they won landmark decisions for us in the process. Continue reading →
It was my honor today to be a panelist at a Hill event on “Apps, Ads, Kids & COPPA: Implications of the FTC’s Additional Proposed Revisions,” which was co-sponsored by the Family Online Safety Institute and the Association for Competitive Technology. It was a free-wheeling discussion, but I prepared some talking points for the event that I thought I would share here for anyone interested in my views about the Federal Trade Commission’s latest proposed revisions to the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA).
The Commission deserves credit for very wisely ignoring calls by some to extend the coverage of COPPA’s regulatory provisions from children under 13 all the way up to teens up to 18.
- that would have been a constitutional and technical enforcement nightmare. But the FTC realized that long ago and abandoned any thought of doing that. So that is a huge win since we won’t be revisiting the COPA age verification wars.
- That being said, each tweak or expansion of COPPA, the FTC opens the door a bit wider to a discussion of some sort age verification or age stratification scheme for the Internet.
- And we know from recent AG activity (recall old MySpace age verification battle) and Hill activity (i.e. Markey-Barton bill) that there remains an appetite for doing something more to age-segment Internet populations
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