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Structural Transformation of Privacy

The idea that privacy is under threat is a prevailing concern in current privacy debates. At the heart of those debates is the protection of personal data and communication, which are particularly vulnerable to exposure due to technological developments. 


Even though privacy protection is the object of political, legal and constitutional regulation in ever more states, a theoretical foundation for political action and legal decisions is lacking. Whilst the boundaries and the value of privacy are historically and culturally determined, they are affected by the developments in information and communication technology. This situation calls for an examination of changes in the meaning of privacy in the digital age.


Technological developments and the increasing digitization of social life constitute the impulse to investigate the structural transformation of privacy. What needs to be examined is the distinction between private and public spheres and whether individuals are able to determine their respective boundaries. Information societies seem to be committed to two conflicting claims: on the one hand, they demand ever more transparency and free flow of information; on the other hand, they are concerned about uncontrolled dissemination of personal information and demand the protection of its privacy. 


This project brings together political scientists, legal-, media- and information technology scholars to reflect on the meaning, value and the shifting boundaries of privacy. The privacy discourses in these four disciplines have proceeded separately so far, but it is only by combining their conceptual resources that an advancement with regard to privacy protection can be made. There are a number of parallel research themes across the four disciplines that enable us to formulate research directions, and, ultimately, policy recommendations. The idea that privacy is under threat is the first theme that emerges in all four privacy discourses. The increasing interdependence between privacy issues arising in law, politics, the media and the internet indicates a second research direction. Finally, the question about the role of privacy for the individuals in democratic society that arises in all four disciplines sets the third research direction. 

Structure of the Project

The project „Structural Transformation of Privacy“ consists of four subprojects that address privacy issues from the perspective of, respectively, political science, law, media studies and information science. Three research themes arise in all four subprojects and designate cooperative fields of inquiry: (1) Privacy and Freedom; (2) Privacy and Democracy; (3) Privacy and Information Society. 

(1):Privacy and Freedom

Legal and political discussions about privacy protection adopt the traditional liberal view of privacy, according to which privacy protects a sphere of negative freedom of individuals. Over the last decade, however, a novel view of privacy has gained traction in privacy scholarship .On that view, privacy protects socially valuable spaces of communication. What implications does this new understanding of privacy have for legal protection of privacy? 


In the digital contexts, the boundaries between the private and the public are shifting and losing their sharpness. In effect, individuals are often left to themselves to decide what is private an what is not. Do these individual decisions cumulate in a new understanding of privacy? Does the new understanding of privacy affect the way in which individuals approach privacy in non-digital contexts? With the rise of web 2.0 individuals increasingly engage in the creation and dissemination of personal information online, which makes controlling the personal information after disclosure difficult. Does it mean a corresponding loss of freedom on the part of individuals? 

(2): Privacy and Democracy

Privacy is of value not only to individuals, but also to society. The social value of privacy derives from its role in facilitating informal modes of social interaction and relations of trust which are an important form of social capital. Privacy also contributes to ethical pluralism and it protects the integrity of distinct social spheres. What is the role of privacy in the political domain? Do the new digital possibilities of political action expand possibilities for democratic participation? Is there a trade-off to be made between gains in democratic participation and a loss of individual control over personal data? Does the digitization of politics trigger new forms of domination and how can they be reduced? 

(3): Privacy and Information Society

Due to technological developments, more and more information about individuals, which has traditionally been considered as private is being collected, stored, processed, changed, and disseminated by private and public organizations. While increased accessibility of personal data may have important benefits (e.g., better service, convenience, new action opportunities), individuals experience it as a loss of control over access to information about themselves. In effect, societies are caught in a paradox: they demand public access to ever more data in the public domain, but, at the same time, demand new guarantees of the privacy of personal information. Is there a way to reconcile these claims?


Individuals in information societies increasingly develop digital identities, which are often different from people’s non-digital selves. In light of this development, the classic concept of individual rights needs revision: what does it mean to protect rights of individuals in the digital age? Are technical solutions helpful and where are their limits? 

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