Privacy as a value for democratic societies – Beate Roessler #mediaiplaw

By MARK PEARSON

It is only in the past twenty or so years that the societal value of privacy has become of interest and still more recently that there has been a particular focus on the value of privacy for democracies, University of Amsterdam Professor of Ethics Beate Roessler proposed to the 2015 IP and Media Law Conference at the University of Melbourne Law School today (November 24).

“Privacy protection is necessary not only for individual freedom and autonomy but also for the functioning of the democratic society,” she said.

Professor Beate Roessler from the University of Amsterdam

Professor Beate Roessler from the University of Amsterdam

Beate Roessler is Professor of Ethics at the University of Amsterdam and chair of the Capacity group of Philosophy and Public Affairs. She also chairs its Department of Philosophy. In her keynote address she explored her work examining the difficulty of keeping up privacy standards on social network sites and the role of anonymity in social/political relations and the consequences of the loss of that anonymity.

Professor Roessler pointed to statements by Edward Snowden in 2013 and 2015 as an interesting focus upon the democratic value of privacy, where he had justified his revelations partly upon the contest between the state’s surveillance and the individual citizen’s privacy.

She listed three steps in the conceptualisation of privacy – firstly, the classic conception of Warren and Brandeis as the right to be let alone, the fundamental idea being that the right to freedom is protected by, and dependent upon, the right to privacy.

The second step after Warren and Brandeis was the ‘social dimensions of privacy’.
“The social norms which regulate privacy enable us to play different roles,” she said. “They enable us to play these different roles and have these different relations.
“If I started telling you now about my grandmother I would violate the demand of the role I am playing here. It is not just my autonomy, but it is also the norm itself that regulates our relations.
“Privacy is also a social practice, meaning the norms protect individual privacy and the right is part of the practice.
“Also respect for the privacy of other people is part of the practice. It is part of the deal of the social norms of privacy. The right to privacy and respect is always socially contextualised.

“The idea that we are democratic subjects is also the idea that our privacy is protected.”

She explained that the value of privacy has for the most part of the last hundred years been conceived of in purely individual terms: the protection of privacy being important or even constitutive for the protection of individual freedom and autonomy.

The third step after Warren and Brandeis was the significance of privacy for democracy.

“I want to argue that it is precisely this social and democratic value of privacy which is at stake in the digitized society,” she proposed.

She said events in Paris this month had not changed her mind about the value of privacy in democracy, but did make the issues more challenging to address publicly.
“Political participation is dependent on the protection of privacy,” she said.
The loss of privacy affects all social and political relations between people, she argued.
Although the right to privacy remains important as an individual right, the Snowden revelations have made clear that violations of privacy have immediate impact on our social lives as well as on liberal democracies.
Privacy is under pressure in the digitized society through state surveillance, consumer surveillance, via the ‘internet of things’, and through social network sites with the voluntary sharing of personal data including the self-tracking devices and the quantification of self movement.
“New technologies do have an impact on our relationships, for better or for worse.
“The right idea is to think about what does privacy do in our society, and if that changes how far can we go with that change?”
She used privacy settings as an example of the status of privacy in society: “Standard preferences are public, but privacy is an extra task or an achievement.”
“Our personal data are analysed by companies that are collecting, storing and mining as the default. It is what is happening if we do nothing.
“Forgetting, deleting is an extra task, an achievement.”
Anonymity was important to privacy, but as Snowden revealed our anonymity is not protected any longer.
“Lack of anonymity can cause loss of freedom, harmful for the individual and democratic society,” she said.
She pointed to the use of drones as the next “massive threat”.
She said arguments against anonymity such as accountability and public security did not allow for the fact that neither had increased markedly in recent years with large scale surveillance.
“The threat of a life without the protection of privacy involves the transformation of social and political relations,” she concluded.
“If we have to assume there is no privacy protection any longer in our social relations it means our social relations tend to get homogenized.
“How can I understand myself as a democratic subject if I can’t assume any longer that my privacy is not being protected?
“How do we change and how does society change, when our sense of privacy changes, when we lose the differences in self-presentation, possibilities of political participation, and when we lose the possibilities of control?”
From 2003-2010 Roessler was Socrates-Professor for the Foundations of Humanism at Leiden University. Before, she taught philosophy at the Free University, Berlin, Germany, and at the University of Bremen, Germany. Roessler studied philosophy at Tuebingen, London, Oxford, and Berlin and completed her PhD in 1988 at the Free University Berlin (on theories of meaning in analytic philosophy and hermeneutics). In November and December 2015 she is visiting as a research fellow at University of Melbourne, Melbourne Law School. Her publications include Social Dimensions of Privacy: Interdisciplinary Perspectives (edited with Dorota Mokrosinska, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 2015) and The Value of Privacy (Polity Press, 2005).

The full conference program is here. Our paper (Pearson, Bennett and Morton) was titled ‘Mental health and the media: a case study in open justice’ (see earlier blog here) and was presented yesterday (November 23).

Those interested in privacy as a topic might also see my timeline of privacy in Australia here.

———–

Disclaimer: While I write about media law and ethics, nothing here should be construed as legal advice. I am an academic, not a lawyer. My only advice is that you consult a lawyer before taking any legal risks.

© Mark Pearson 2015

Leave a comment

Filed under Privacy, Uncategorized

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s