Privacy Advisor

Solove Sounds Off

April 1, 2008

Daniel Solove was in great demand after his session on "The Future of Reputation: Gossip, Rumor and Privacy on the Internet" Thursday afternoon at the IAPP Privacy Summit in March. Attendees queued up to meet the man who wrote the book on the topic, literally. Privacy Advisor caught up with him after the conference.

PA: At what point did you become interested in issues related to privacy, exhibitionism, reputation, etc…?

Solove:
In 1996. I took a course on cyberlaw, one of the earliest courses about the topic. I found the issues fascinating. When I graduated from law school, I started doing research and wrote a paper on information privacy and computer databases. As I became more acquainted with privacy issues, I became more interested. This interest blossomed into papers and ideas, and eventually, into a textbook on information privacy law.

PA: The Chronicle of Higher Educa-tion said your book The Future of Reputation: Gossip, Rumor, and Privacy on the Internet is "an honest and troubling account of the ways that we have become our own enemies." Have we become our own enemies?

Solove: In many ways we have. For the first time in history, ordinary people are able to express themselves to a worldwide audience. They are spreading intimate information about themselves and others online. As a result, people are becoming unemployable, are suffering from emotional distress and embarrassment because of some of the information exposed about them on the Internet.

PA:
In your talk you outlined some of the things we can do about these challenges. Can you give us an example of one?

Solove:
When there are harmful rumors or gossip about you on the Internet the first thing is to try informal means of redress. Once you get into a lawsuit, it becomes messy and expensive. For example, if you Google yourself and your family and find something that shouldn't be there, or something you don't want there, try to get the page owner to take it down. Many times you can. If not, you can bring a lawsuit if it's defamatory or invasive of privacy. But the law is not strong when it comes to providing protection.

PA: What about a law?

Solove:
I would recommend tweaking the common law, but I'm nervous about hasty legislation in response to a sensational case. The privacy torts are largely based in the common law, and one of the things holding them back are antiquated judicial notions of privacy. Judges need to adopt more nuanced and contemporary understandings of privacy for these torts to work more effectively.

PA: At GW Law School, you teach Information Privacy Law. Are you seeing an uptick in the development of privacy-related classes?

Solove:
Just a few years ago there were fewer than five or six courses related to privacy law. Now I see 30-40 or more and the number grows every year. The need and interest are growing rapidly. And the number of people writing in the field is growing dramatically.

PA: What else do you teach at GWU?

Solove: Criminal Law, Criminal Procedure, and Law & Literature, a course where we look at literary works that can contribute to a legal understanding.

PA: Like To Kill a Mockingbird?

Solove: That's a great work, but most students have already read it. My class covers works by Shakespeare, Kafka, Melville, Sophocles, Capote, Morrison, Dostoyevsky, and others.

PA: Do you have a blog?

Solove: Yes, Concurring Opinions. It covers current privacy cases, statutes, and privacy law news. www.concurringopinions.com.

PA: What blogs do you read regularly?

Solove: I read dozens of blogs. Some of my favorites include Pogo Was Right, Bruce Schneier on security (Schneieronsecurity), Eric Goldman's Goldman's Technology and Marketing Law Blog, and others. I have links to some of my favorite blogs about privacy issues at my textbook Web site, http://informationprivacylaw.com. I also read BNA's Privacy & Law Report and the IAPP's Daily Dashboard.

PA:
Tell us about your new book, Understanding Privacy.

Solove: Understanding Privacy was just published by Harvard University Press in May 2008. It is designed to help us untangle how we should understand privacy�in a clear and accessible way. Privacy is such a vague, elusive concept�when you ask most people, they struggle to define it. When we say we're going to protect privacy, what exactly are we doing? Nobody has yet convincingly articulated what privacy is or why it is valuable. I hope that my book will achieve these goals, and I hope that privacy professionals and policymakers will find the book illuminative and useful.

PA: What is next on your horizon?

Solove:
I'm working on several projects, a new edition of my textbook, several articles, and some books.

Daniel Solove is associate professor of law at George Washington University Law School. His Web site is http://www.danielsolove.com. His new book, Understanding Privacy, was released this month by Harvard University Press. http://www.understanding-privacy.com