CITP Lunch Seminar: Ari Ezra Waldman - Privacy Discourse
This project is about the discourses of privacy and privacy law. It constructs the landscape of privacy discourse, where it has been, where it is going, and who it empowers along the way. Based on primary sources research, the project argues that the changing discourse around privacy is shifting power over our data from the field of law to the terrain of technology, thereby weakening substantive privacy protections for individuals.
The dominant discourse of privacy today, often called “notice and consent”, is explicitly neoliberal. This regime has been roundly criticized by privacy scholars as a failure. And yet, for all its faults, notice-and-consent always made sense from a sociological or phenomenological perspective. That is, it was inadequate yet scrutable; because of the latter, we determined the former. Neoliberal privacy law is ineffective, but it was always accessible and open for interrogation from the ground up. That inadequate, yet relatable discourse, however, is now losing ground to the inscrutable, unaccountable discourse of technology designers. The same neoliberal social, political, and legal forces, superpowered by more advanced technology and a more powerful technologist profession, are shifting privacy law discourse from accessible concepts like choice to inaccessible computer code, from something regulators could interrogate to the “black box” language of technology. The discourse of privacy law and, thus, power over its translation into practice, resides in the design team, where engineers, supervised by other engineers, make consequential choices about how, if at all, to interpret the requirements of privacy law and integrate them into the code of technologies they create. Based on primary source research, this project argues that the code-based discourse of engineers is gaining hegemonic power in privacy law, thereby defining privacy law and what it means in practice, stacking the deck against robust privacy protections, and undermining the promise of privacy laws already passed.