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.