Michael Birnhack, a professor at Tel Aviv University Faculty of Law, is one of the leading thinkers about privacy and data protection today (for some of his previous work see here and here and here; he’s also written a deep, thoughtful, innovative book in Hebrew about the theory of privacy. See here). In a new article, Reverse Engineering Informational Privacy Law, which is about to be published in the Yale Journal of Law & Technology, Birnhack sets out to unearth the technological underpinnings of the EU Data Protection Directive (DPD). The DPD, enacted in 1995 and currently undergoing a process of thorough review, is surely the most influential legal instrument concerning data privacy all over the world. It has been heralded by proponents as “technology neutral” – a recipe for longevity in a world marked by rapid technological change. Alas, Birnhack unveils the highly technology-specific fundamentals of the DPD, thereby putting into doubt its continued relevance.
The first part of Birnhack’s article analyzes what technological neutrality of a legal framework means and why it’s a sought after trait. He posits that the idea behind it is simple: “the law should not name, specify or describe a particular technology, but rather speak in broader terms that can encompass more than one technology and hopefully, would cover future technologies that are not yet known at the time of legislation.” One big advantage is flexibility (the law can apply to a broad, continuously shifting set of technologies); consider the continued viability of the tech-neutral Fourth Amendment versus the obviously archaic nature of the tech-specific ECPA . Another advantage is the promotion of innovation; tech-specific legislation can lock-in a specific technology thereby stifling innovation.
Birnhack continues by creating a typology of tech-related legislation. He examines factors such as whether the law regulates technology as a means or as an end; whether it actively promotes, passively permits or directly restricts technology; at which level of abstraction it relates to technology; and who is put in charge of regulation. Throughout the discussion, Birnhack’s broad, rich expertise in everything law and technology is evident; his examples range from copyright and patent law to nuclear non-proliferation.