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Mind the Gap (Symposium on Configuring the Networked Self)

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3 Responses

  1. Julie Cohen says:

    Paul, I’m so glad you liked the book. To your point that “Cohen has not yet done enough to explain how we get from the abstraction to concrete, defensible solutions,” you are absolutely right. That wasn’t the point of this particular book, which tried to do its heavy lifting at the theory stage and which certainly doesn’t need to be any longer! But it definitely needs to be the point of subsequent projects … and those projects also need to smooth out some of the terminology so more of it is, if not bumper-sticker worthy, at least amenable to shorter sentences!

    I love your insight about the machete and think it is absolutely right. We get into trouble when we try to craft “precisely defined, narrowly tailored, and rigidly constructed” rules. We just aren’t as foresighted as we like to think we are.

    And you’re right that someone needs to tackle the project of understanding and explaining exactly where and how information privacy rules do/should intersect with freedom of expression rules, another task the book did not take on. (I’m being deliberately clunky there – information privacy concerns are global so “the First Amendment” can’t be the be-all and end-all; the discussion has to be situated within global information privacy and free expression frameworks.)

  2. Frank Pasquale says:

    Great post, Paul. I really like the valorization of semantic discontinuity in the context of internet marketing and tracking. I think it gets trickier when we add in concerns about public health and security.

    For example, imagine that, a decade from now, a complete digital copy of your medical record exists. Doctor and hospital visits, prescription records, genetic tests, even records of gym visits and food purchased at the grocery story are part of one, unified computer file. If you’re a member of the “quantified self” movement, you can also insert verified tracking of your average pulse, sleep time, weight, and meters walked per day. Consider the following possible uses of the file:

    1) A physician wants to determine how people with profiles similar to yours have responded to a drug she wants to prescribe for you.
    2) A pharmaceutical firm wants to market certain products to you based on your medical profile.
    3) A reputational intermediary offers to build a “personal prospectus” that demonstrates how healthy you are. Once it certifies the document, you can include it in job applications to self-insured employers to try to demonstrate how little you will cost them.
    4) A domestic intelligence “fusion center” at the Department of Homeland Security is trying to determine the priority for vaccine distribution if an avian flu strikes in late 2023.
    5) A search engine wants to use the data to optimize ads for you.
    6) An employer wants the record to determine if you should be promoted.

    Each of these scenarios reflects current legal controversies about access to information that is increasingly easier to store and analyze. I think the practical question for proponents of semantic discontinuity is: how do we configure architectures of health information storage so that certain of these uses can be barred, or reported to the data subject, and others can happen as smoothly and swiftly as possible? I think the final chapters of this report are a good starting point:

    But it has not been greeted with enthusiasm by corporate stakeholders in the HIT field.

  3. Paul Ohm says:

    Frank, thanks for the comment. You raise a key problem. Julie’s solution seems to be: broad baseline limitations on all uses of data with narrow exceptions for “advancing individual well-being”. But as I begin to say in the post, I can’t imagine how we’d support this solution (or any solution) starting from semantic discontinuity until we develop a more sophisticated model for operationalizing.

    You end your comment focusing on the debate itself, the fact that stakeholders will object to any change along these lines. This is where I see real power in Julie’s book. The way she fearlessly takes on sacred cows like “information equals knowledge” and “we need to weed out structural inefficiencies” gives me hope that we might finally break out of the tired old rhetorical patterns we always find ourselves replaying.