First Day of Conference, PM: Introductions and Lee Wilkins on Privacy

After dinner at the hotel, the conference participants introduced themselves—quite a diverse group, with professionals from the worlds of journalism, advertising, law, technology and education. Pam Johnson, executive director of the Reynolds Journalism Institute at MU, also said a few words about the RJI fellows and their role in finding solutions to sustaining trustworthy journalism in the future.

The evening’s highlight was a very engaging talk by MU professor Lee Wilkins on the critical issue of privacy as it relates to the exchange of information on the web. She outlined philosophical perspectives on privacy as well as traditional legal definitions, and how those could be reconciled in a research component as a means to building a better understanding of how privacy is changing in the 21st century—and ultimately, how such a theory could help the IVP succeed.

In philosophy, Wilkins said, the notion of privacy has long been regarded as a positive force that protects people while also helping the individual form notions of his or her own community. By contrast, in its legal application privacy is regarded as a limiting force, e.g., what government may or may not do with regard to public surveillance.

Wilkins introduced the concept of “contested commodities,” i.e., the notion that the market commodifies some things incompletely (an inexpensive but treasured wedding ring being an example). Privacy could also be thought of as a contested commodity—some people will gladly give it up in exchange for a certain good (peeing in a cup for the sake of getting a job), while others hang on to it more tightly. Wilkins is currently researching attitudes about privacy among differing age groups, and will be advising the Information Valet Project on matters of privacy.

A dynamic discussion followed, with conference participants commenting on the possible negative consequences of disclosing personal information, the importance of context in the utilization of users’ personal information, the often unconscious exchange of privacy for convenience (the iPhone’s GPS function being an example) and Facebook’s function as a communal courtyard in which users have proved themselves to be comfortable revealing personal information.

Emily Sussman

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