Federal Privacy Workshop confronts privacy in the age of Facebook

On October 2 the Information Law Institute at the NYU School of Law held a day-long workshop in anticipation of the likely introduction of new federal privacy legislation. During four panel discussions experts from academia, industry, government, and public interest organizations discussed and debated preemption, fair information practices, and the emergence of social networking, collective privacy, and behavioral advertising. Speakers included David Vladeck, director of the Federal Trade Commission’s Bureau of Consumer Protection; Mike Hintze, Microsoft associate general counsel; Jane Horvath, Google’s senior privacy counsel; and the Information Law Institute’s Professor Helen Nissenbaum and Senior Fellow Ira Rubinstein. At a dinner the evening before the workshop, Professor Joseph Turow of the University of Pennsylvania and Christopher Hoofnagle of the University of California, Berkeley, School of Law presented a pathbreaking survey of consumer attitudes toward behavioral advertising that helped to frame the day’s debate.

Professor Katherine Strandburg moderated the afternoon’s two panels on emerging topics, “Social Networking and Collective Privacy” and “Behavioral Targeting.” During “Social Networking and Collective Privacy,” panelists Danielle Citron of the University of Maryland School of Law, James Grimmelmann of New York Law School, and Lior Strahilevitz of the University of Chicago Law School discussed myths about privacy on social networking sites like Facebook and how social networking sites can be monitored by marketers and government agencies.

While users cannot maintain absolute privacy while using social networking sites, Grimmelmann says that, in fact, “users do not want everything to be seen.” By choosing which friends and networks are allowed to see their data, users demonstrate that they do not intend to share their information with everybody. Unfortunately, Grimmelmann said, users do not always understand what is at stake when they begin posting information and photos. Strahilevitz took the analysis one step further while discussing online associations and the issue of collective privacy; a person’s online profile can divulge information about others, too. One example concerned Sir John Sawyer, the United Kingdom’s soon-to-be-chief of Britain's Secret Intelligence Services, whose wife’s Facebook photos revealed his identity.

Citron discussed the use of social networking sites by the government—not just for campaigning and marketing, but also, potentially, to monitor citizens’ activities. Government pages allow users to become “friends” of agencies and even the president. While these government pages encourage “open government” and policy input using discussion boards and provide sources of news and information, they also may give government the opportunity to gather information from the users. To ensure privacy, Citron suggests a ‘one-way mirror’ strategy—let the public see and interact with President Obama’s page, but forbid the president from accessing data from his fans that has nothing to do with policy.

The diverse viewpoints represented at the workshop provided a framework to help understand the ever-changing interaction between technologies and new media privacy.  “The old rubrics for privacy regulation are no longer adequate for today’s online world,” said Strandburg. “By bringing together all of these stakeholders for debate and discussion, NYU made an important contribution to a critical policy debate.” 

Posted on October 6, 2009

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