Neil Richards Explains the Importance of Intellectual Privacy

By TAP Staff Blogger

Posted on May 8, 2015


Privacy law professor Neil Richards recently spoke at the University of Washington’s Tech Policy Lab about his new book, Intellectual Privacy: Rethinking Civil Liberties in the Digital Age. In Professor Richards’ words, “the book is about technology and human values.”

Professor Richards started his talk by painting the digital landscape we currently live in. We increasingly communicate, read, and think with the help of technology; and features of these technologies track and record our thoughts, interests, and purchases. Thus Facebook knows when you fall in love, Kindle and Nook are learning your reading habits, and Google continues its work to get to know you. “We live in an age of corporate and government surveillance of our lives,” Professor Richards said. He continued, “The level of information that is recorded, managed and saved raises privacy concerns.”

The protection of our intellectual activities is what Professor Richards calls “intellectual privacy.” This includes privacy for thoughts, readings, research, and confidences; and it is especially significant when digital technologies are being used because those technologies often capture detailed records of opinions, judgments, evaluations, analyses, beliefs, and communications.

Professor Richards put forward that legal protection of intellectual privacy is essential to the First Amendment values of free speech. At the core of the First Amendment is a commitment to the freedom of thought, he said. In order to speak, it is necessary to have something to say; and the development of ideas and beliefs often take place in solitary contemplation or collaboration with a few trusted confidants.

Discussing how surveillance skews the way people think and act, Professor Richards shared findings of the “chilling effect” from Alex Marthews and Catherine Tucker’s article, “Government Surveillance and Internet Search Behavior.” Using data from eleven countries on select search keywords from before and after the Snowden surveillance revelations of June 2013, the authors found there was a drop in traffic for search terms that were rated as personally sensitive (i.e., anorexia, divorce, homosexuality). The authors conclude: “Our results suggest that there is a chilling effect on search behavior from government surveillance on the Internet, and that government surveillance programs may damage the international competitiveness of US-based internet firms.”

Professor Richards emphasized that the ability to freely make up our minds and to develop new ideas depends upon a substantial measure of intellectual privacy. In this way, intellectual privacy is a cornerstone of First Amendment liberties.

Intellectual Privacy: Rethinking Civil Liberties in the Digital Age was published by Oxford University Press in February, 2015.

Neil Richards is a Professor of Law at Washington University in St. Louis, where he teaches and writes about the law of privacy, the Internet, and civil liberties. His recent work explores the complex relationships between free speech and privacy in cyberspace. He is an Affiliate Scholar at the Center for Internet and Society at Stanford Law School, a member of the Advisory Board of the Future of Privacy Forum, and a consultant in privacy cases.