Matheson: The Original Privacy Position

David Matheson has posted an excellent essay on the blog*on*nymity research blog suggesting a merger of Nagel and Rawls into a theory of “the original privacy position”:

Perhaps we can make use of a privacy version of the Original Position; call it the “Original Privacy Position.” Thus, as before, imagine a group of individuals behind a metaphorical veil of ignorance. Now, however, the veil only precludes them from knowing anything significant about their privacy position in society. Inhabitants of the Original Privacy Position, in other words, don’t know such things as whether their privacy is generally at serious risk, whether they attach a great deal of value to their privacy, whether they are in a position to make a lot of money through the diminishment of others’ privacy (or whether others are in such a position with respect to them), etc. And behind this veil of privacy ignorance they are given the task of deciding upon the basic norms of “reticence and privacy,” to use Nagel’s phrase, or norms of the “contextual integrity” of personal information, to use Helen Nissenbaum (1998, 2002)’ s equally apt one. The idea would be that whatever basic norms inhabitants of the Original Privacy Position would agree upon, those are the basic privacy norms that any just society should respect.

Maybe they would agree upon norms quite analogous to Rawls’s two general principles of justice. First, there would be the privacy norm:

Privacy. Each member of society is to have a maximal amount of basic privacy consistent with a similar privacy for everyone else.

Then there would be something like the difference of privacy means norm:

Difference of privacy means. Inequalities with respect to individuals’ means of controlling their privacy (e.g. inequalities concerning access to technologies designed to protect their privacy, or to diminish that of others) are to be such that they bring the greatest benefit to the least privacy privileged members of society (i.e. to those members of society who are the least advantaged with respect to controlling their privacy).

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