Grimmelmann and Privacy as Product Safety

by on Mar.03, 2010, under general

I’ve been pretty haggard with work lately, so I’m a bit late on this, but James Grimmelmann has written a great paper called “Privacy as Product Safety”, to be published in the Widener Law Journal. It’s an adaptation of his “Myths of Privacy on Facebook”, and it’s quite good.

In his “Saving Facebook”, Grimmelmann explained the “social dynamics” of privacy problems on Facebook. He canvassed the social science literature to explain how and why people used Facebook, and what their behavior could tell us about proper regulation and privacy protections.

But in this article, he’s honing in on what I’ll call the “design dynamics” that he explored in his first article – that is, how the design of Facebook (or other such services) relates to its privacy problems. This idea isn’t new – he calls them “privacy lurches” in Saving Facebook, and they’re somewhat the focus of my “Losing Face” – but what is really great about this article is how Grimmelmann maps product liability law onto the scaffold of social network sites.

For example, on Google Buzz:

“Buzz as a whole is a powerful, possibly revolutionary product—but it also launched with a serious design defect. Just as an otherwise-useful buzzsaw is still unreasonably dangerous to life and limb if it sports a flimsy handle, the auto-add feature made the otherwise-useful Buzz unreasonably dangerous to privacy.”

In “Losing Face”, I mostly gave up on law as a tool to fix the defective designs of social network sites. I’m interested, and excited, by Grimmelmann’s effort to adapt liability law to achieve an admirable end.

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