Examined Lives: Informational Privacy and the Subject as Object

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Cohen, Julie E.
Privacy rights; Data privacy protection; First Amendment; Intellectual Property Law; Internet Law
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In the United States, proposals for informational privacy have proved enormously controversial. On a political level, such proposals threaten powerful data processing interests. On a theoretical level, data processors and other data privacy opponents argue that imposing restrictions on the collection, use, and exchange of personal data would ignore established understandings of property, limit individual freedom of choice, violate principles of rational information use, and infringe data processors' freedom of speech. In this article, Professor Julie Cohen explores these theoretical challenges to informational privacy protection. She concludes that categorical arguments from property, choice, truth, and speech lack weight, and mask fundamentally political choices about the allocation of power over information, cost, and opportunity. Each debate, although couched in a rhetoric of individual liberty, effectively reduces individuals to objects of choices and trades made by others. Professor Cohen argues, instead, that the debate about data privacy protection should be grounded in an appreciation of the conditions necessary for individuals to develop and exercise autonomy in fact, and that meaningful autonomy requires a degree of freedom from monitoring, scrutiny, and categorization by others. The article concludes by calling for the design of both legal and technological tools for strong data privacy protection.