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W&L Law Professor Wins Fulbright Grant for Privacy Law Study

Washington and Lee law professor Josh Fairfield has been awarded a Fulbright Grant to study privacy law in the U.S. and European contexts. Fairfield will conduct his research this summer at the Max Planck Institute for Research on Collective Goods in Bonn, Germany.

Fairfield explains that the buying and selling of personal information for targeted advertising is the business that drives today’s internet. From web giants like Facebook and Google to mom and pop stores just looking for a little more foot traffic, every business if looking for a way to attract the kind of customers they want. But it can still be a bit of the Wild West when it comes to regulating the flow of this personal information, with the U.S. and European Union taking very different approaches to the issue.

“Privacy law experts draw a big distinction between Europe, which views privacy as dignity, and the U.S., which views privacy as property,” says Fairfield. “Americans tend to accept that if your personal information is sold, you will get something of value in return,” says Fairfield. “But in Europe, selling your dignity isn’t something you can do.”

European Union countries have strict regulations for how companies can use personal information, regulations which many companies say stifle economic growth. The U.S. model is not without its critics as well, who argue that personal information is often taken without a user’s knowledge or in ways that users are not aware of.

While Fairfield says that the U.S. and the EU are moving closer together on an approach to personal privacy, he argues that government needs to get involved to help set limits on the kind of data that internet companies can track and how they can use it, especially with the rise of location-based user data.

“With smart phones, the internet travels with us wherever we go,” says Fairfield.  “This makes the acquisition of personal data more invasive, and more valuable, than ever before.” For example, not only can brick and mortar companies target advertising to the exact likes and dislikes of their customers but  also know when those customers are within ten miles of a store.

An expert in the law and regulation of e-commerce and videogames, Prof. Fairfield’s research and scholarship explores the law and economics of online contracts and the application of standard economic models to virtual environments. He has briefed intelligence officials on terrorist activity and law enforcement within virtual worlds and has written on strategies for protecting children online. In October 2008, Fairfield organized and hosted a first-of-its-kind symposium at W&L exploring the legal and social challenges of virtual worlds built specifically for children, the fastest growing area of virtual environments.

Prof. Fairfield earned his JD magna cum laude from the University of Chicago in 2001. After law school, Professor Fairfield clerked for Judge Danny J. Boggs at the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit. He then joined Jones Day in Columbus, Ohio, where he litigated cases in commercial law and software/technology law.

Before embarking on his legal career, Fairfield directed the development of the award winning Rosetta Stone Language Library, a leading language teaching software program for educational institutions.

News Contact:
Peter Jetton
School of Law Director of Communications
(540) 458-8782

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