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24 October 2014

Private Information – Open Debates @ ESRC 2014

By Ulrike Höppner and Jörg Pohle.

The workshop »Private information – Open Debates« was part of the »Global Privacy Governance« project and focused specifically on the governance aspect of global privacy politics. The question of how privacy is regulated at the global level is central to understanding the challenges of governing the Internet for two reasons in particular. On the one hand, how privacy is maintained or endangered is a crucial societal issue: breaches of privacy may violate individual rights and over-regulation may hinder technological innovation or impede freedom of speech. Neither of these values are absolute but permanently negotiated in society, precluding any absolute closure of the debate. On the other hand, privacy is a pivotal example of many of the governance challenges arising from the particular nature of Internet governance – the transborder nature of almost all activities, the intricate connection between the technical infrastructure, social and economic interaction, and the ample new opportunities for communication as well as content creation and distribution. Our workshop focused on the ways in which privacy regulation is negotiated, the role of national and cultural discourses and forms of transborder migration of ideas and practices.

Three very exciting cases were presented as the basis for our debate. Dennis Redeker (University Bremen/Jacobs University) presented his paper »Waving the Blue Flag – Explaining Georgia’s Convergence with the West on Issues of Privacy and Surveillance on the Internet« on the interaction between national and international debates on the governance of privacy. Looking at the case of Georgia, he laid out how international debates contribute to changing attitudes as well as actor coalitions in the national context. Taking a more historical perspective, Gianluigi Negro (China Media Observatory, Università della Svizzera Italiana) introduced his analysis of Internet governance in China in his paper »From Internet in China to the Chinese Internet«. His particular focus was the role of Chinese Internet companies in shaping the infrastructure of the Chinese Internet and the consequences of the »going-out« policy. Efrat Daskal (Hebrew University of Jerusalem, currently at CGCS, Annenberg School for Communication) outlined her new project on »The Role of Digital Rights Advocacy in the Campaign for the Right for Privacy«, which will focus on how digital rights activists frame and understand privacy issues. The project compares American and Israeli advocacy groups and promises to shed light on the interrelation between national political debates, specific perceived threats to privacy and cultural differences in the framing of privacy issues.

The first part of the debate focused on the importance of the framing and definition of privacy. While there is already a broad understanding of how different cultural backgrounds shape people’s perception of privacy and privacy threats as well as the regulations sought, other influences on the framing of privacy are less reflected in the literature. Stakeholder attitudes differ widely not just with respect to the legal traditions in different countries or regions, but also in their fundamental conception of privacy, depending for example on their scientific discipline or business model. Identifying and analyzing these different factors is a necessary requirement for any deeper understanding of the ways in which privacy regulation is negotiated, formulated and implemented at the national, regional and global levels.

In the second part, we discussed how national, regional and global debates are interconnected by organisational, legal, financial and ideological ties. We discussed, how regulations may travel across world regions and how national regulation is influenced by regional debates. More often than not, global and national debates are only part of the equation. Regional debates and actors play an important role in shaping national discourses – as the case of Georgia shows. Privacy governance is multi-layered and hence best understood when taking seriously the complexity of the interaction between different levels of governance.

The concluding question engaged the challenges of research design and possible biases in the formulation of research questions. We dealt with the different transparency practices actors have depending on their internal structure. Uncovering digital activists’ perception of privacy might be much easier than determining the understanding of privacy underlying the lobbying of Internet firms – or the code of particular platfoms – as these negotiations are usually closed off to the public eye. Furthermore, some actors draw more attention than others because they are large or particularly controversial. Size or controversiality may, however, not necessarily relate to the gravity of the privacy threats generated by such actors. It is worth considering in how far research steps back to evaluate such biases.

Our lively debate was enriched by expert participants from various institutions: Gloria González Fuster (Vrije Universiteit Brussel), Rafael Prince (King’s College London, Brazilian Ministry of Foreign Affairs), Isabel Skierka (Global Public Policy Institute), and Theresa Züger (HIIG). The many constructive inputs have further convinced us of the importance of looking at the governance of privacy in particular and highlighted the many things that can be learned for Internet Governance in a more general sense. We believe this workshop was only the first step in a productive research cooperation on the global governance of privacy.

Photo: Josh Hallett

This post is part of a weekly series of articles by doctoral candidates of the Alexander von Humboldt Institute for Internet and Society. It does not necessarily represent the view of the Institute itself. For more information about the topics of these articles and associated research projects, please contact

This post represents the view of the author and does not necessarily represent the view of the institute itself. For more information about the topics of these articles and associated research projects, please contact

Ulrike Hoeppner

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Du siehst eine Tastatur auf der eine Taste rot gefärbt ist und auf der „Control“ steht. Eine bildliche Metapher für die Regulierung von digitalen Plattformen im Internet und Data Governance. You see a keyboard on which one key is coloured red and says "Control". A figurative metaphor for the regulation of digital platforms on the internet and data governance.

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