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Over onsWaar vindt u onsdr. U.T.R. (Titus) Stahl

dr. U.T.R. Stahl

Universitair Docent

Privacy and Political Freedom

Whether democratic governments are allowed to engage in so-called “dragnet surveillance” of the communications of their citizens is one of the most contested political issues of our times. Edward Snowden's revelation of the existence of previously unknown forms of communications surveillance, anxiety about privacy violations and the perception that surveillance is necessary to combat terrorism have led to a lively debate in society and academia. In response, the legal frameworks surrounding communications surveillance are currently being changed in many countries. It is of crucial importance that legislation rests on a plausible understanding of the moral and political values that are at play. In particular, the values of security and criminal justice must be weighed against the value of privacy. The proposed research project wants to give a new account of the value of communications privacy.

Most traditional accounts of privacy assume that privacy protects the freedom and status of individual citizens for example, their dignity or negative liberty. Many people therefore think that surveillance is unproblematic as long as individual, law-abiding citizens do not have any negative consequences to fear. This argument neglects the possibility that surveillance not only harms individual interests but also harms collective practices. To examine this possibility, privacy theory needs to go beyond the individualist perspective that dominates much of contemporary theory and focus on the social relationships between citizens, in particular on their relationships in the political sphere. We can only arrive at a comprehensive account of the value of privacy if we also consider how surveillance affects political relationships in the public sphere.

Even though a recent White House report notes that “if people are fearful that their conversations are being monitored […] the democratic process itself may be compromised”  and even though public discussions of privacy increasingly centre on this topic, such a political approach has not been systematically explored in the literature. The hypothesis of this project is that privacy is essential for democratic self-government because it ensures that citizens can freely and collectively determine the nature of their relationships with each other and the government in the public sphere.

The strategy that I propose to examine this hypothesis has three features:

  • It will start from a consideration of the distinctive forms of power which are enabled by contemporary forms of surveillance.

  • It will go beyond the importance of privacy for individuals to find out what role privacy rights have for the public sphere.

  • It will develop a new argument for the political value of privacy by showing which features of the public sphere are essential for democratic freedom and how privacy rights can serve to protect them.

Laatst gewijzigd:25 november 2016 12:18


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