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Legal roundtable: Society must evolve with technology

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James Cridland via Flickr
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In the age of social media and shiny new technology, there often are questions about privacy.

“Nobody wants absolute privacy — that would require us to live like hermits and not see anybody,” Washington University law professor Neil Richards told “St. Louis on the Air” host Don Marsh on Thursday. “At the same time, we want to connect with people, but we also want to be able to do so on our own terms.”

Richards is the author of “Intellectual Privacy: Rethinking Civil Liberties in the Digital Age.” He said intellectual privacy refers to protection for reading, thinking and having conversations.

“It’s the basic idea that if we care about freedom of speech, if we care about democracy, if we care about having a robust debate about matters of self-governance, we need places, we need periods of calm and quiet and reflection, and we need a lack of surveillance when we are reading, when we are thinking, when we are discussing our half-baked ideas with our friends, our spouse, our confidants before we’re ready to sort of commit to them publicly and speak out.”

As technology changes and evolves, so must society, Richards said.

“It’s important that we insist that we build the sort of digital society that we want to live in, that we build the kind of digital society that fits with our values of individual liberty and freedom of thought and equality and opportunity, rather than one in which those values are dictated to us by shadowy marketing companies or get-rich-quick data miners or the NSA in some of its darker moods.”

Asking the law to keep up with technology often isn’t as effective as addressing underlying issues, Richards said.

“The best rules are ones that don’t regulate a particular technology. They regulate a particular social practice,” he said. “They regulate saying false things or writing false things about a person. Libel law is a thousand years old. The basic principles of libel law still continue to apply on the Internet.”

Libel is a published false statement that damages a person’s reputation. In the past, it was a big issue for newspapers. Now it’s also an issue for anyone with a Facebook or Twitter account.

But it’s not all about social media. Technology has create eavesdropping televisions and dolls, too.

“We need to be in control of our society,” Richards said. “It will be difficult. We will make mistakes; we will get things wrong. But it’s really important that we build the devices, the technologies, the services for the society we want, rather than for the society that’s most profitable.”

In addition to intellectual privacy, Richards, William “Bill” Freivogel, professor at the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University–Carbondale, and Mark Smith, associate vice chancellor of students at Washington University, discussed free speech versus hate speech, free speech issues in the University of Oklahoma fraternity case, Missouri Supreme Courts action concerning municipal court issues, legal issues raised in by Tom Schweich’s suicide and the U.S. Supreme Court’s consideration of the Affordable Care Act.  

Related event

Book discussion and signing with Neil Richards

  • When: Noon March 30, 2015
  • Where: Bryan Cave Moot Courtroom, Anheuser Busch Hall, Washington University, St. Louis
  • More Information

“St. Louis on the Air” discusses issues and concerns facing the St. Louis area. The show is produced by Mary Edwards and Alex Heuer and hosted by veteran journalist Don Marsh. Follow us on Twitter: @STLonAir.

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