The new book “Social Dimensions of Privacy” edited by Beate Roessler and Dorota Mokrosinska is a particularly welcome addition to current privacy scholarship. The book is based on two important points of departure for the study of privacy: the understanding that privacy is not per se an individual right, but that it derives its value from its societal function, and therefore the necessity to approach privacy from an interdisciplinary perspective. In 17 chapters, divided into three parts, the book revisits the main points of some papers that have now become standard literature, addresses recent controversies and discusses the regulatory challenges when privacy is considered to be a social good. The book is excellent as an introduction to privacy, to get an overview of the most important literature of the last few decades, and to form an idea on how to legislate the future of privacy.

As Daniel Solove notes in his chapter “The meaning and value of privacy,” the social approach to privacy – as well as other civil liberties – was already argued by John Dewey, an American philosopher, in the 1930’s. Dewey explained that rights – such as privacy –lose out against other interests in utilitarian calculations of politicians and legislators, if the right is not considered from the point of view of its value to society. Helen Nissenbaum builds on her theory of contextual integrity and explains how privacy is a social value that allows conventions to develop in different sectors, whereby trust in information exchanges can be established. Priscilla Regan revisits her famous book “Legislating Privacy: Technology, Social Values, and Public Policy” from 1995 and calls on scholars ranging from John Stuart Mill, to the Greek/German professor Spiros Simitis, and danah boyd to justify that her original idea of framing privacy as having a common, public, and collective value still holds true today, perhaps even more so.

Several of the chapters, as well as the introduction, focus on the concept that the Internet is an inherently socio-technical information system, where human users play an important part in shaping the network. The human element in such systems entails that rights will also be affected by the system, especially privacy. History has shown that privacy norms and rules are also shaped by specific social and cultural desires for private spaces in specific contexts. The authors note that lawmakers are being increasingly pushed to legislate privacy meaningfully, which should result in a more societal view of privacy, rather than an individual rights approach.

Understanding the effect of Internet technology on abstract rules and norms that shape society, such as privacy, is a complex issue that will need to be approached from a multidisciplinary perspective. Several project exist to address privacy from a multidisciplinary point of view, see for example the publications by the EU Internet Science consortium about an “Overview of Online Privacy, Reputation, Trust, and Identity Mechanisms” and “A roadmap for IOT/cloud/distributed sensor net privacy mechanisms.”

Bart Schermer Partner / founder

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