Helen Nissenbaum evaluates concerns about online privacy

New York University Professor Helen Nissenbaum outlined her approach to evaluating concerns about pervasive loss of online privacy at the March 8 Liberation Technology Seminar. Nissenbaum discussed how moral and political imperatives have struggled to keep up with technology, creating a tension between technical affordance and informational norms. She argued that privacy is never complete and that there cannot be a meaningful universal rule to guide the protection of privacy across all online contexts. Nissenbaum argued that a productive approach to evaluating what kinds of privacy norms should be adopted will take into account the context.

The predominant approach to online privacy is that the privacy policy should be transparent, voluntary for the user, and enforceable when a privacy policy has been made available. Nissenbaum argues that corporations have adopted such practices in order to gain a better understanding of their communities, but these practices have not worked. They are not effective because of the “transparency paradox,” which is the tension between divulging privacy practices in great detail and providing a policy users will actually read. Nissenbaum suggested that online privacy policies should be used only in grey areas, where they reveal the unexpected and advocate for a contextual approach to online privacy in the general case.

Her proposed alternative considers online privacy in light of informational norms. Technology has totally disrupted the flow of obtaining, utilizing, and distributing information. We live in social spheres, characterized by canonical activities and expectations that govern how people act. We are accustomed to informational norms that dictate information flow between people acting in certain capacities. We expect certain transmission principles to dictate the terms of information flow from one party to the next.

Drawing on this philosophy of privacy, Nissenbaum argued that contextual integrity is breached when actions or practices violate informational norms. She argued that we should respect these norms because they help us appreciate the value of privacy—it prevents harm and risk, limits unfair discrimination, support freedoms, and promotes autonomy and social integrity. In conclusion, she argued that we should evaluate disruptive or novel flow patterns, testing new practices against ethical, political, and internal standards. Technology reveals issues that have never been confronted before however, we have the ethical resources to handle them appropriately.