Report of an interdisciplinary conference that took place at the University of Hohenheim from May 16 to May 17.
Privacy online: What have we learned so far? To answer this question, several international privacy scholars came together in order to present, exchange, and discuss their most important insights regarding privacy and online contexts. In what follows, we present some of the conference’s key insights!
The conference began with a welcome by Prof. Dr. Karsten Hadwich, Dean of
the Faculty of Business, Economics and Social Sciences. Afterward, Prof. Dr.
Sabine Trepte also welcomed the speakers and participants, giving an overview
about the research project Transformations of Privacy. As a special highlight,
Tobias Dienlin read out a welcome note by the renowned privacy scholar Irwin
Altman, in which he addressed all delegates, encouraging everyone when
researching privacy online to focus explicitly on aspects of interpersonal
paradoxes, and theory
The first keynote speaker was Woodrow Hartzog, Professor of Law and
Computer Science at Northeastern University School of Law. He shared his
results about the future of privacy and design rules from a law perspective and
pointed out that the design of technology is paramount: Hartzog argued that
design is everything, that design is power, and that design is political. Hartzog
stated that control has mostly evaporated. As countermeasures, he encouraged to
implement obfuscation, to regulate design in order to increase autonomy, and to
think about our online affiliations in terms of trust relations.
In her talk about Privacy and Control, Sabine Trepte elaborated on several
of Hartzog’s positions. She concluded that in some aspects, e.g. anonymity on
social networking sites, users still have some control. But for others aspects such
as persistence of information or association of content users have lost most of
their control. As additional (and non-exclusive) alternative to control, Sabine
Trepte argued that users should engage in mutual communication, thereby
creating trust and norms that can help foster privacy on social networking
Paula Helm from the Goethe-University Frankfurt focused on Paradoxes of
Privacy, presenting several results of her research. According to Helm, privacy
practices show several inherent normative paradoxes. As illustration, she offered
an example from South Africa, where the government publicly shared data of
household water consumption to save water. However, it turned out that the
surplus was sold to more affluent people, who were thereby able to maintain
their swimming pools – which, somewhat ironically, was detected from publicly
available Google satellite images.
Dr. Katharina Bräunlich from the University of Koblenz-Landau continued
with a presentation about Privacy and Theory and the Interdisciplinary Privacy
Model. The model is a joint collaboration from all partners of the project
“Strukturwandel des Privaten”. It differentiates four different elements: (a)
communication context, (b) protection needs, (c) threat and risks, and (d)
and developmental aspects
The next speaker, Lemi Baruh from Koç University, Istanbul, focused on Privacy
and Self-Hood. Baruh pointed out that big data affects self-hood by changing
(and in most cases reducing) individual agency in so-called micro-moments and
liminal states. Moreover, Baruh argued that social score systems (as
implemented in for example China) can have substantial effects on people’s self-images
In the second keynote, Sonia Livingstone gave an overview on Privacy and
(psychological) Development. She reminded participants that there is no separate
Internet for kids. Instead, from an early age on children are using the very
same services as adults. Problems are also the same: Short-term gratifications are
often preferred over long-term risks. According to Livingston, studying privacy
and Internet use of young people is crucial: Being the canaries in the
coalmine, better understanding how young people use the Internet will give
researchers a headstart for a more general understanding of risks and benefits
as well as use practices.
IT, trust, personalization,
Day two of the conference began with a keynote about Privacy and IT. Christoph
Sorge from the Saarland University argued that privacy can be negatively affected
by devices that are connected to the Internet (known as the Internet of
Things). Specifically, so-called smart electricity meters can give away tremendous
amounts of personal information about its users (for example, what movie is
currently being watched). But Sorge also revealed that there exist several mechanisms
to safeguard privacy – however, at this point both users and policy makers are
confronted with the challenge to actually implement them in an effective way.
Speaking of which, trust is another a central factor that should be
implemented more explicitly. In the next talk, adopting a legal perspective Johannes
Eichenhofer from the University of Bielefeld offered several concrete options
on how to implement trust into privacy-related exchanges between users,
government agencies, and corporate companies. For example, and next to many
other aspects that were mentioned, Eichenhofer asked to differentiate explicitly
between trust in other people and trust in the government.
Nadine Bol from Tilburg University continued with questions about Privacy
and Personalization. She presented research in which she and her research team
from the University of Amsterdam were able to show that personalization indeed does
take place. The researchers produced compelling evidence by logging the
behavior of Dutch Internet users (who installed a browser plugin), evidencing
that respondents indeed saw different adverts. Bol finished by asking several
normative questions, for example, who is the winner and who is the loser of
increasing online personalization?
The final panelist, Philipp Masur from the University of Mainz, focused on Privacy
and Self-disclosure. He asked several important theory-oriented questions: What
is a situation, what is an environment, and what is a context? He posited that a
situation consists of all currently available influences, including both
external and internal ones. His main take-away was that researchers should
increasingly address, understand, and research privacy from a situational
The last keynote speech of the conference was delivered by Colin Bennett
from the University of Victoria, Canada. As a political scientist he gave a
summary about the influence of Politics on Privacy – and vice versa. Among
other things he emphasized that when it comes to determining elections, a
pivotal role is played by so-called micro-targeting. However, Bennett also argued
that micro-targeting has always been taking place and that it even can be seen
as a means of political deliberation. However, big data mechanisms now have
made micro-targeting increasingly powerful. He concluded that at least by now politicians
have finally understood the actual value of privacy.
Tobias Dienlin closed the conference by summarizing the main results of
both days (on the basis of which this summary was drafted), while also
leveraging a call to action that researchers should now dare to move on and to
share all these insights about privacy online with the public – preferably
using powerful images, several of which were presented at the conference.
We like to thank everyone involved for such an inspiring conference!
Sabine Trepte, Tobias Dienlin & Marie-Claire Gödde
The conference was organized by Sabine Trepte and Tobias Dienlin from the Department of Media Psychology, University of Hohenheim. It was funded and supported by the Volkswagen Foundation.