Adam Thierer, ‘Privacy Law’s Precautionary Principle Problem’

Privacy law today faces two interrelated problems. The first is an information control problem. Like so many other fields of modern cyberlaw — intellectual property, online safety, cybersecurity, etc. — privacy law is being challenged by intractable Information Age realities. Specifically, it is easier than ever before for information to circulate freely and harder than ever to bottle it up once it is released.

This has not slowed efforts to fashion new rules aimed at bottling up those information flows. If anything, the pace of privacy-related regulatory proposals has been steadily increasing in recent years even as these information control challenges multiply.

This has led to privacy law’s second major problem: the precautionary principle problem. The precautionary principle generally holds that new innovations should be curbed or even forbidden until they are proven safe. Fashioning privacy rules based on precautionary principle reasoning necessitates prophylactic regulation that makes new forms of digital innovation guilty until proven innocent.

This puts privacy law on a collision course with the general freedom to innovate that has thus far powered the Internet revolution, and privacy law threatens to limit innovations consumers have come to expect or even raise prices for services consumers currently receive free of charge. As a result, even if new regulations are pursued or imposed, there will likely be formidable push-back not just from affected industries but also from their consumers.

In light of both these information control and precautionary principle problems, new approaches to privacy protection are necessary. We need to invert the process of how we go about protecting privacy by focusing more on practical “bottom-up” solutions — education, empowerment, public and media pressure, social norms and etiquette, industry self-regulation and best practices, and an enhanced role for privacy professionals within organizations — instead of “top-down” legalistic solutions and regulatory techno-fixes. Resources expended on top-down regulatory pursuits should instead be put into bottom-up efforts to help citizens better prepare for an uncertain future.

In this regard, policymakers can draw important lessons from the debate over how best to protect children from objectionable online content. In a sense, there is nothing new under the sun; the current debate over privacy protection has many parallels with earlier debates about how best to protect online child safety. Most notably, just as top-down regulatory constraints came to be viewed as constitutionally-suspect and economically inefficient, and also highly unlikely to even be workable in the long-run for protecting online child safety, the same will likely be true for most privacy related regulatory enactments.

This article sketches out some general lessons from those online safety debates and discusses their implications for privacy policy going forward.

Thierer, Adam D, Privacy Law’s Precautionary Principle Problem (June 12, 2014). Maine Law Review, Vol 66, No 2 (2014).

First posted 2014-06-15 05:55:46

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