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Schulich Law Professor Jonathon Penney's "chilling" Internet‑regulation research is more urgent now than ever

Posted by Andrew Church on April 16, 2018 in News
(Photo: Andrew Church)
(Photo: Andrew Church)

On March 27, Schulich School of Law Professor Jonathon Penney presented “Chilling Effects: How Laws and Surveillance Impact Us Online” as part of the Luncheon Speaker Series at Princeton University’s Center for Information Technology Policy (CITP). To the audience gathered in Room 306 Sherrerd Hall on campus, Penney discussed how online surveillance and forms of Internet regulation “chill” or deter people from exercising their rights and freedoms online, with some serious implications for access to information and deliberative democracy.  

“With Internet censorship and mass surveillance on the rise globally, understanding regulatory ‘chilling effects’—the idea that laws, regulations, or state surveillance can deter people from speaking and acting freely—in our post-Snowden and now post-Cambridge Analytica world has taken on greater urgency and public importance,” says Penney. “This talk draws on my recent research to provide insights on a range of related questions.”

In addition to teaching upper-year seminar law and technology as well as first-year contract law at Schulich Law, Penney (JD ’03) is director of our law school’s Law and Technology Institute (LATI) and a 2017–2019 technology policy research affiliate at CITP. He is also a research affiliate of the University of Toronto’s Citizen Lab, as well as a research collaborator at the Civil Servant Project at the MIT Media Lab. His background in the legalities of online privacy, surveillance, and information security, and his research on chilling effects and self-censorship online, are a perfect fit for the projects and studies being conducted at CITP.

With Internet censorship and mass surveillance on the rise globally, understanding regulatory ‘chilling effects’ has taken on greater urgency and public importance. — Professor Jonathon Penney

“Princeton has special expertise in computation, social science, engineering, and technology policy more generally, which fits nicely with my legal research,” says Penney. “It’s a great opportunity to meet new people doing cutting-edge work in this space.”

CITP provides interdisciplinary research that questions the intersection of technology, policy, and society. As a research affiliate, Penney has a formal relationship with CITP but isn’t required to keep a full-time residency at Princeton. Affiliate terms usually last two years, with the possibility of an extension, and engage in CITP’s work remotely—through research collaborations, posts on the CITP’s Freedom to Tinker blog, or other joint projects.

One project Penney is involved with tracks the impact of automated legal processes on Internet users and involves computational social scientists from Princeton and computer scientists from the MIT Media Lab. “This project explores the impact of automated legal processes, including those powered by machine learning algorithms, and how to mitigate them,” says Penney. “My previous research on surveillance and regulatory chilling effects gained some media attention in the U.S., which I think helped garner more interest in my work.”

Penney was recently awarded an SSHRC Insight Award for his investigative research, along with his research partners, Teresa Scassa of Ottawa Law and Pamela Robinson of Ryerson University. The group will receive $190, 000 over four years for their research entitled “Developing a public interest-based approach to ownership, users rights, and privacy interests in publicly accessible platform data.”

In the first year of his three-year term as LATI’s director, Penney has been busy thinking through a new mission and strategic plan for the next academic year along with Professor Lucie Guibault, LATI’s new associate director. “We have some new ideas in the work to expand, re-think, and re-envision the Institute and its place in the law school, including the research and advocacy we pursue and how we communicate and disseminate that work. Stay tuned!”