Anita L. Allen is the Henry R. Silverman Professor of Law and Professor of Philosophy at the University of Pennsylvania. At Penn, she is a faculty affiliate of the Center for Technology, Innovation and Competition, the Warren Center for Network & Data Sciences and a Senior Fellow of the Leonard Davis Institute for Health Economics. A graduate of Harvard Law School with a PhD in Philosophy from the University of Michigan, Allen is an expert on privacy and data protection law, bioethics and public philosophy. She holds an honorary doctorate from Tilburg University. In 2019 Allen was President of the Eastern Division of the American Philosophical Association. In 2021 she was awarded the Quinn Prize for service to philosophy and philosophers. She is an elected member of the American Law Institute, the National Academy of Medicine, and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.
Allen served under President Obama as a member of the National Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues. Allen currently serves on the boards of the National Constitution Center, the Electronic Privacy Information Center and the Future of Privacy Forum. Allen has lectured on privacy in Europe, Japan, Taiwan, and Israel; published five books and over 120 scholarly articles; contributed to and been featured in popular newspapers, magazines, podcasts and blogs; and appeared on numerous television and radio programs. In 2024 Allen will give the H.L. A. Hart Memorial Lecture at the University of Oxford.
How did you become interested in philosophy?
My childhood was boring. As the Italians say, it was all “casa, scuola, chiesa”. To relieve boredom, I read. I read a lot of novels, romance magazines, and encyclopedias before discovering philosophy and theology somewhere around age 12 or 13. Because I have read so widely and for a long time, my thinking has been diversely shaped by analytic, phenomenological, existentialist, critical, and feminist thought. Sadly, I was not exposed to Native American, Latin American, African or Asian philosophy in school. In college and graduate school, I was educated solely in American pragmatism, along with British, French, German and, of course, Greek philosophy.
What’s the most important concept or idea that you teach people?
As an academic lawyer and philosopher working in a major research university, the most important concept I teach is the concept of privacy. The most important idea I teach is that privacy has ethical and legal value highly relevant to the digital age. In a less formal sense, I hope I teach by the example of my conduct, service and commitments, the importance of equality, self-respect and resilience.
What do you think is the most important piece of practical advice that we can derive from your work?
In recent work scheduled for publication in the Yale Law Review Forum, I discuss the problems of racial discrimination, hate and political manipulation perpetrated by online platforms – such as Facebook, Google, Twitter, and Uber – their algorithms, advertisers and users. I offer practical advice about using privacy and data protection law, along with industry self-regulation and other approaches, to address platform ills. I argue that there is promise but challenge in European Union GDPR-influenced US state and federal law and proposed laws.
Do you have a favorite quote that you use?
One of my favorite quotes comes from an American state court opinion recognizing the right to privacy, Pavesich v New England Life Insurance Co. in 1906. I seem to quote it in nearly everything I write about privacy. A judge analogizes invasions of privacy to slavery, the condition of bondage that brought my African ancestors to North America against their wills. The quote reads:
The knowledge that one’s features and form are being used for such a purpose, and displayed in such places as such advertisements are often liable to be found, brings not only the person of an extremely sensitive nature, but even the individual of ordinary sensibility, to a realization that his liberty has been taken away from him; and, as long as the advertiser uses him for these purposes, he cannot be otherwise than conscious of the fact that he is for the time being under the control of another, that he is no longer free, and that he is in reality a slave, without hope of freedom, held to service by a merciless master.
What advice would you give someone who wanted to learn more about what you do?
Anyone interested in learning more about my work in law, the nonprofit sector, government service or philosophy can always grab my cv from my University of Pennsylvania Carey School of Law webpage or Google me. I note that there is a wonderful book that came out in 2019, edited by Rebecca Buxton and Lisa Whiting, which includes a chapter about me, Philosopher Queens: The Lives and Legacies of Philosophy’s Unsung Women. I recommend it! There is also a discussion of me placed in historical context in Carlin Romano’s book, America the Philosophical; and published interviews with me including in The New York Times and What It’s Like to be a Philosopher.
Suppose you were able to give a talk or workshop at the original location of Plato’s Academy…
It would be awesome to have the opportunity to offer a workshop at the original location of Plato’s Academy in Athens. I use the “Socratic method” in my law school teaching. Over the years I have become skilled at teaching through the process of posing questions and building knowledge dialectically through series of questions and answers, rather than through pedantic lecturing from behind a podium. (However, the fact that Socrates was sentenced to death for allegedly corrupting the minds of youth has to give one pause!)
I have also become pretty good at educating other professionals using the Socratic method. I have designed and led professional development workshops at the University of Pennsylvania for university administrators (deans, department chairs, center heads) on the ethical exercise of discretion using a Socratic format. I think the ghost of Plato might be surprised, but not disapproving, to see a black American woman hanging out in Athens doing what Socrates did. Quoting from the Benjamin Jowett translation of Plato’s Republic:
Women are the same in kind as men and have the same aptitude or want of aptitude… . [T]here is no longer anything unnatural or impossible in a woman learning… . [H]e who laughs at them is a fool…Plato, The Republic
Anita L. Allen, Presidential Address, “The Philosophy of Privacy and Digital Life,” 93 Proceedings of the American Philosophical Association 21-38 (2019).
Anita L. Allen, “Ideas and Ideals: Honoring Joyce Mitchell Cook,” Think, volume 20, issue 59, Autumn 2021.
Anita L. Allen, Protecting One’s Own Privacy in a Big Data Economy, 130 Harvard Law Review Forum 71 (2016).