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Platforms, Privacy, and Power: Why Intimate Privacy Protections Matter (RSM Speaker Series)

November 29, 2023

Berkman Klein Center
1557 Massachusetts Avenue
Cambridge, MA

November 29, 12:00 PM–November 29, 1:00 PM

The Institute for Rebooting Social welcomes Jon Penney and Alexis Shore for a discussion of their research on platform intimate privacy protections.

The Institute for Rebooting Social welcomes Jon Penney and Alexis Shore for a discussion of their research on platform intimate privacy protections, coauthored with Danielle Citron.

This event will be held at the Berkman Klein Center (room 515) from 12pm-1pm ET. Lunch will be served! In-person attendance is limited to Harvard ID holders, but the general public is invited to attend virtually via Zoom.

Today, intimate privacy—which seeks to protect access to and information about our body, health, sexuality, gender, intimate thoughts, desires, preferences, and close personal relationships—is increasingly under threat. Social media platforms and networked technologies enable powerful new forms of surveillance to monitor, track, and quantify our intimate lives. Intimate personal images, information, and media are shared at mass scale online without consent. Smartphones are easily repurposed by spyware and stalkerware to spy on us and our partners. The home, increasingly wired with “smart” appliances, is no longer a sanctum for our most personal and private activities. Such violations of intimate privacy, which disproportionately impact women and minorities, have a profound impact: chilling victims into silence; denying sexual agency, intimacy, and equality; eroding trust necessary to forge relationships; and potentially leading to other forms of physical, emotional, and sexual abuse. These challenges are even more urgent in our post-Dobbs era—a time when intimate privacy and deeply personal decisions about the body, health, and reproductive freedom are not only threatened, but criminalized.  

Despite these significant threats and harms, comprehensive efforts to protect intimate privacy—both by governments and private sector actors—are rare. In fact, such efforts are often criticized and opposed on the basis they would likely chill speech, sharing, and the free flow of information online and off. Compounding the problem is a serious lack of systematic empirical and theoretical study of both intimate privacy and efforts to protect it. Seeking to fill this void, we discuss findings from new experimental studies—including a longitudinal study—exploring the impact of both legal and social media-based measures to protect intimate privacy. Contrary to claims of critics, we find such protective measures—rather than chilling speech and other activities—actually fostered trust, intimate sharing, and expression—especially among prior victims of online abuse and visible minorities. We also found that in some contexts social media/designed based privacy protections can have even greater salutary effects than law-based ones. We discuss the implications of these and other findings for law, public policy, and system design.

Jon Penney is a legal scholar and social scientist based at Osgoode Hall Law School, York University, in Toronto. He is also a Faculty Associate at the Berkman Klein Center and a former Visiting Scholar at the Institute for Rebooting Social Media. Penney’s research and teaching expertise lies at the intersection of law, technology, and human rights, with strong interdisciplinary and empirical dimensions. His award-winning work has received national and international attention, including coverage in the Washington Post, Reuters International, New York Times, Newsweek, TIME Magazine, NBC News, and The Intercept.

Alexis Shore is a PhD candidate in the Department of Emerging Media Studies at Boston University. Her research draws on frameworks from law, media psychology, and communication to explore the respective roles of platform design, policy, and individual differences on decision-making related to privacy and trust. Shore’s work seeks to enhance privacy within socio-technical systems ranging from legacy messaging platforms to the metaverse.