Beate Roessler & Dorota Mokrosinska, The social value of privacy

Beate Roessler & Dorota Mokrosinska, The social value of privacy

Comment by: Ian Kerr

PLSC 2011

Workshop draft abstract:

Threats to, and the protection of individual privacy have been the subject of public and scholarly debate for some time. This debate focuses on the significance of privacy for individual persons: How is a right to privacy justified? How are privacy, freedom, dignity and autonomy related? How important is the protection of individual privacy in a liberal constitutional state?  Recently, a novel perspective has emerged in the debate on privacy. A number of scholars have argued that the significance of privacy goes beyond the individuals’ interests it protects. By protecting individual privacy, we protect not only the interests of individuals, but also the interests of society. Besides its value for individuals, privacy has also an irreducibly social value.

We intend to show that only by analyzing and conceptualizing the social value of privacy can we depart from the normative problems confronting us when we focus on the protection of individual (informational) privacy. This set of normative problems finds expression in a conflict often sworn between individuals and society: individual interests in privacy (and freedom) are directly opposed to societal interests in safety and protection from terrorism, as well as efficient administration or effective healthcare. The impression then arises that the one – i.e. the protection of privacy – needs to be taken less seriously in order to satisfy better the other – i.e. societal interests. The fact that this description of the constellation between individual persons and their social and societal contexts is problematic and misleading only becomes clear when we analyse the social value of privacy.

We will proceed as follows: In a first step, we shall address in full the discussion centering around a right to individual privacy, as well as the embedding of this discussion in liberal theory (I). We shall then explain the different ways in which the social value of privacy can be conceptualized, as well as the attempts made at this to date which are available in the literature (II). This leads us to a distinction between three paradigmatic types of relationship and social practices which are each reliant on the protection of – different types of – privacy, and discuss each one in turn: intimate relationships (between family members or friends) (III), professional relationships (IV) and interaction between strangers (V). In a final step we shall then analyse the different, thus distinguished forms of the social value of privacy; how exactly these different forms relate to one another; and what this means for potential conflicts between the interests of society and the protection of individual privacy (VI).