Privacy as Product Safety

35 Pages Posted: 1 Mar 2010 Last revised: 27 Oct 2012

Date Written: February 26, 2010


Online social media confound many of our familiar expectations about privacy. Contrary to popular myth, users of social software like Facebook do care about privacy, deserve it, and have trouble securing it for themselves. Moreover, traditional database-focused privacy regulations on the Fair Information Practices model, while often worthwhile, fail to engage with the distinctively social aspects of these online services.

Instead, online privacy law should take inspiration from a perhaps surprising quarter: product-safety law. A web site that directs users' personal information in ways they don't expect is a defectively designed product, and many concepts from products liability law could usefully be applied to the structurally similar problem of privacy in social software. After setting the scene with a discussion of how people use Facebook and why standard assumptions about privacy and privacy law fail, this essay examines the parallel between physically safe products and privacy-safe social software. It illustrates the value of the product-safety approach by considering another ripped-from-the-headlines example: Google Buzz.

Keywords: privacy, products liability, Facebook, Google Buzz

JEL Classification: K00

Suggested Citation

Grimmelmann, James, Privacy as Product Safety (February 26, 2010). 19 Widener Law Journal, Vol. 19, p. 793, 2010; NYLS Legal Studies Research Paper No. 09/10 #26. Available at SSRN:

James Grimmelmann (Contact Author)

Cornell Law School ( email )

Myron Taylor Hall
Cornell University
Ithaca, NY 14853-4901
United States

Cornell Tech ( email )

111 8th Avenue #302
New York, NY 10011
United States

Register to save articles to
your library


Paper statistics

Abstract Views
PlumX Metrics