Hey Look at Me! I’m Reading! (Or Not) Neil Richards on Social Reading

Do you want everyone to know what book you read, film you watch, search you perform, automatically? No? Yes? Why? Why Not? It is odd to me that the ideas behind the Video Privacy Protection Act do not indicate a rather quick extension. But there is a debate about whether our intellectual consumption should have privacy protection, and if so, what that should look like. Luckily, Neil Richards has some answers. His post on Social Reading is a good read. In response to the idea that automatic sharing is wise and benefits all captures some core points:

Not so fast. The sharing of book, film, and music recommendations is important, and social networking has certainly made this easier. But a world of automatic, always-on disclosure should give us pause. What we read, watch, and listen to matter, because they are how we make up our minds about important social issues – in a very real sense, they’re how we make sense of the world.

What’s at stake is something I call “intellectual privacy” – the idea that records of our reading and movie watching deserve special protection compared to other kinds of personal information. The films we watch, the books we read, and the web sites we visit are essential to the ways we try to understand the world we live in. Intellectual privacy protects our ability to think for ourselves, without worrying that other people might judge us based on what we read. It allows us to explore ideas that other people might not approve of, and to figure out our politics, sexuality, and personal values, among other things. It lets us watch or read whatever we want without fear of embarrassment or being outed. This is the case whether we’re reading communist, gay teen, or anti-globalization books; or visiting web sites about abortion, gun control, or cancer; or watching videos of pornography, or documentaries by Michael Moore, or even “The Hangover 2.”

And before you go off and say Neil doesn’t get “it” whatever “it” may be, note that he is making a good distinction: “when we share – when we speak – we should do so consciously and deliberately, not automatically and unconsciously. Because of the constitutional magnitude of these values, our social, technological, professional, and legal norms should support rather than undermine our intellectual privacy.”

I easily recommend reading the full post. For those interested in a little more on the topic, the full paper is forthcoming in Georgetown Law Journal and available here. And, if you don’t know Neil Richards’ work (SSRN), you should. Even if you disagree with him, Neil’s writing is of that rare sort where you are better off by reading it. The clean style and sharp ideas force one to engage and think, and thus they also allow one to call out problems so that understanding moves forward. (See Orwell, Politics and the English Language). Enjoy.

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4 Responses

  1. A.J. Sutter says:

    1. It is astonishing and disheartening that Neil Richards’s post and article are necessary at all, and that your own post assumes the reader will oppose Neil’s point of view.

    2. “Because of the constitutional magnitude of these values, our social, technological, professional, and legal norms should support rather than undermine our intellectual privacy” (emphasis added): Is it only because of their “constitutional magnitude” that these values are worth protecting? What if the Supreme Court decides in the future that there isn’t really a Constitutional right to privacy? Would that mean it’s not important to human beings, even American human beings? Is the Constitution the sole arbiter of what is important socially?

    3. Anyone who really wants to share what he or she is watching can already send emails or text messages to friends, post the information on a blog or manually include the information on his or her social networking home page. The argument that the Video Privacy Protection Act’s “protection of video store records stood in the way of sharing movie recommendations among friends online” is obviously a red herring. What neither your nor Neil’s post — nor the paper — seizes on that it is commercial interests, not consumers, who are pushing for “frictionless sharing” – especially because they will have access to the shared data. Doesn’t that present some special dangers, regardless of any Constitutional dimension?

    4. And if you’re going to talk about threats to Constitutional values, BTW, how about the fact that if frictionless sharing becomes permissible in the States it will be thanks to lobbying by a couple of humongous companies?

    5. “Neil’s writing is of that rare sort where you are better off by reading it. The clean style and sharp ideas force one to engage and think”: Not to say anything against Neil, but who is the audience for this remark? Aren’t you forgetting where you’re posting this? Isn’t this description also apt for a great deal of the writing on Concurring Opinions, for example? Or are you just trying to illustrate how more reflection before sharing is a good idea?

  2. Deven Desai says:

    Dear AJ,

    There is no assumption. I do not assume “the reader” will oppose the view. Read his post. Some press for the sharing model. It took a fight to oppose the bill, and read my post: I note there is a debate. Guess what? You know this because you press on the commercial interest. Hey, look! They might disagree. And oh yeah, Neil talks about FaceBook and Netflix. Also there is a difference between email and the sharing that these companies want to promote.

    My guess is that you have decided that my work at Google means you can attack me. Tip: I am not there anymore and you have no idea what I did there or how the company works. As for my audience, again you assume rubbish. It was a general compliment that many papers are not as clearly written, and if you read the Orwell you will see why that matters.

  3. A.J. Sutter says:

    Hi Deven

    Calm down, you’re being a little oversensitive. I neither mentioned nor intended anything about Google specifically or you personally. (BTW, I already knew you weren’t there any longer.)

    Particularly, my comment #1 wasn’t directed at you or Neil, but rather at the Zeitgeist. As for your assumption about how readers would react, I based that on your admonition “And before you go off and say Neil doesn’t get ‘it’ whatever ‘it’ may be….” I didn’t say, BTW, that this assumption (assuming that you did make it) would be wrong; in fact I find it very plausible that it might be warranted. And that’s what’s so astonishing and disheartening.

    My comment #2 was a criticism, of a genre quite typical on this blog and from me (directed even at times at people like Frank Pasquale), of the tendency to rush to Constitutionalize problems. Comment #3 was in a similar vein, to point out that the commercial dimension of this social reading issue (or maybe more to the point, of “frictionless sharing”) had escaped both your notice and especially Neil’s. (BTW, I looked at his paper, not just at his blog piece. And some of my best clients are commercial interests.) Comment #4 ditto, since the co-option of the legislative process by major corporations — e.g. Netflix and Facebook, not to my knowledge Google, in this context — should be deemed at least as big a Constitutional issue as sharing of reading and video lists, IMHO.

    And comment #5 was teasing you, perhaps with a bit of a rough edge I do concede, for possible hoof-in-mouth (which can happen to any of us; cf. aforementioned rough edge). Your comment sounded as if it underestimated most readers of this blog, whom I expect already spend much of their time reading stuff that forces them to engage and think. Not least of which, this blog: it’s the one law blog I read daily, precisely because I think the quality of contributions is very high. And that’s even after having read the Orwell, more than once.

    stay cool,
    best regards,

  4. I certainly don’t like it. It’s like broadcasting to the world everything you’re doing and why should I do that? I’m a very private person so this does not apply to me.