Social Networks, Privacy, and Freedom of Association: Data Empowerment vs. Data Protection

47 Pages Posted: 23 Jan 2012 Last revised: 2 Jan 2018

See all articles by Peter Swire

Peter Swire

Georgia Institute of Technology - Scheller College of Business; Georgia Tech School of Cybersecurity and Privacy; Cross-Border Data Forum

Date Written: June 1, 2012


This article examines the tension between social networks as enablers of political mobilization (sharing information is good) and as threats to privacy (sharing information is bad). A central theme is that social networks are platforms to create associations. Linguistically, “networks” and “associations” are close synonyms; they both depend on “links” and “relationships.” This article introduces the idea that limits on such networks can deeply implicate the freedom of association.

Part I sets forth the facts of the tension between mobilization and association (Arab Spring, 2008 Obama campaign) and privacy (enforcement actions against social networks in Europe and the U.S.). Part II introduces the doctrinal structure in the U.S. for addressing the tension. If and when state action limits information sharing in social networks, individual users, political associations, and the networks themselves may have valid claims for violation of First Amendment freedom of association rights.

Part III applies the proposed doctrine to three concrete examples of possible state action, including “privacy by design” and “do not track” proposals that have featured in recent privacy debates. Part IV moves beyond doctrine to examine more generally the tension between “data empowerment,” which relies on sharing of information, and “data protection,” which relies on limits to such sharing. As illustrated by our eagerness to use social networks, access to the personal data of others is often a benefit to individuals, rather than the threat assumed by the data protection approach. These benefits notably include our right to associate, to reach out to people to effect political change and realize ourselves as individuals. The old paradigm for debates about personal information was rights vs. utility; the discussion here shows that data empowerment increasingly makes the debate one of rights vs. rights.

Keywords: social network, privacy, freedom of association, free speech

JEL Classification: none

Suggested Citation

Swire, Peter, Social Networks, Privacy, and Freedom of Association: Data Empowerment vs. Data Protection (June 1, 2012). 90 North Carolina Law Review 1371, 2012, Ohio State Public Law Working Paper 165, 2011 TPRC Conference, Available at SSRN: or

Peter Swire (Contact Author)

Georgia Institute of Technology - Scheller College of Business ( email )

800 West Peachtree St.
Atlanta, GA 30308
United States
(404) 894-2000 (Phone)

Georgia Tech School of Cybersecurity and Privacy ( email )

Atlanta, GA 30332
United States

Cross-Border Data Forum

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