Entrenchment of Non-Privacy Norms Online

Gaia Bernstein, an Associate Professor at Seton Hall University School of Law (and guest blogger over at Law & Technology Theory) has a thoughtful post about how particular diffusion characteristics made the Internet vulnerable to the establishment of what she calls “non-privacy norms.” She writes:

I believe two diffusion characteristics made the Internet vulnerable to this paradox and may make other technologies that share these qualities susceptible to the same paradox. First, the Internet is characterized by a critical mass point quality. This characteristic is prevalent among interactive technologies. A critical mass of people needs to adopt them before they are of value. For example, the telephone was far less useful before there were many people to call. Once the critical mass point is reached the rate of diffusion accelerates. At that point a technology is less likely to be affected by a privacy threat. It is less likely to be abandoned because of the threat. When the critical mass point is reached and diffusion accelerates, social norms become quickly entrenched.

The Internet reached its critical mass point in 1990 with 4 million users worldwide. The privacy threats appeared around the mid-1990s at a time of rapid diffusion, and non-privacy norms became quickly entrenched.

The second relevant diffusion characteristic is decentralization. The entrenchment of non-privacy norms is also enhanced where a technology is decentralized. Where a technology is decentrally diffused all users can re-invent it. In the case of the Internet, many users could act to develop privacy threatening tools, such as cookies. This exacerbated the entrenchment of non-privacy norms.

I suggest that where a technology is characterized by a critical mass point and decentralized diffusion the window of opportunity for intervention is much narrower. Privacy protection, whether through technological design or legal rules, is likely to be effective earlier before social norms are entrenched.

This is important work, and Gaia has two papers that develop these ideas further: The Paradoxes of Technological Diffusion: Genetic Discrimination and Internet Privacy and When New Technologies are Still New: Windows of Opportunity for Privacy Protection.

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