Remarks by Steinhardt’s Nissenbaum Incorporated Into Recent White House Online Consumer Privacy Bill


On Feb. 22, 2012, the Obama Administration unveiled the Consumer Privacy Bill of Rights, articulating clear expectations regarding the way companies handle the collection and use of personal information. Recent problems include iPhone and Android apps that upload a phone’s entire contact list to app companies’ servers, surreptitious collection of consumer information during transactions both online and off, and frequent alterations in company privacy policies.

Last year, Steinhardt professor of media, culture, and communication Helen Nissen-baum, along with her post-doctoral fellows Kenneth Farrall and Finn Brunton, submitted a statement following the administration’s request for public comment on the Department of Commerce’s report on consumer privacy. The recently enacted Consumer Privacy Bill of Rights cites Nissenbaum’s book, “Privacy in Context: Technology, Policy, and the Integrity of Social Life,” as well as the trio’s public words.

“We referenced the theory of privacy as contextual integrity,” says Nissenbaum. “According to this theory, at the heart of privacy is the expectation that personal information will flow appropriately, which, in turn, is determined by the type of information, who is receiving it, and the constraints under which it is shared. Many of the companies that the Privacy Bill of Rights addresses are using information technologies and digital media in ways that have radically disrupted expected information flows. These have become so complex that the companies themselves are hardly able to understand them, let alone all of us directly affected by these practices.”

So why should consumers care about such legislation?

“Individuals can be harmed by inappropriate collection and distribution of information,” says Nissenbaum. “Our freedom and autonomy may be abridged, we may suffer unfair discrimination, and many social institutions, as fundamental as democracy, may be threatened if norms of privacy are not respected.”

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