Henry R. Silverman Professor of Law and Professor of Philosophy Anita L. Allen recently traveled to the Netherlands to receive an honorary doctorate degree, Doctor Honoris Causa, from the University of Tilburg in the Netherlands.
As part of the university’s Founding Day (Dies Natalis), whose theme this year was “Science Under Pressure,” Allen accepted the degree and spoke about “unimagined and unimaginable futures,” connecting her childhood in racially segregated Atlanta, Georgia as the daughter of two teenagers without high school diplomas with the advent of the digital age. Allen noted that these unimagined and unimaginable futures collided as she became “a philosopher and a lawyer whose principal interest for the past thirty-five years has been moral and ethical implications for personal privacy of once unimaginably pervasive technologies that are shaping basic science, medicine, and everyday life.”
Allen spoke of her four recent concerns in her work: “First, why it matters that certain privacies face extinction; second, whether privacy rights protected by our laws are fundamental or only optional; third, whether individuals still have meaningful ethical responsibilities of self-care relating to their personal information; and fourth, and most recently, whether artificial intelligence is more of a threat to a free world than a savior to such a world.”
She ended her acceptance speech with an optimistic outlook and “ray of hope that formerly unimaginable national regulation will be adopted in the U.S.,” citing the “Online Privacy Act of 2019,” a bill recently introduced in Congress by two Silicon Valley Congresswomen, Anna G. Eschoo (CA-18) and Zoe Lofgren (CA-19). If passed, this act “would bring the U.S. quite close to the high EU standard set by the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), and at the same time, it would create a brand new, well-funded and staffed federal agency to serve as the official central data protection authority of the United States,” said Allen.
During the ceremony, Tilburg Law Professor of Regulation and Technology Bert-Jaap Koop presented a statement called “Laudatio” explaining that Allen was chosen for the award for three reasons.
“First,” began Koop, “for your exceptional and interdisciplinary contributions to legal and philosophical scholarship, particularly in the field of privacy studies, in which you ask uneasy questions on legal protection and personal responsibility, freedom and paternalism, paying special attention to the needs of women and racial and sexual minorities. Second,” he continued, “for your active participation in societal debate and policy development. And third,” Koop concluded, “because all of this makes you a role model for students and academics alike.”
Allen also took part in the Tilburg Law School (TLS) symposium entitled, “Freedom, moral responsibility, and human rights.” The academic conference, moderated by Dr. Bart van der Sloot, was designed by TLS to explore two central themes in Allen’s work: “what freedom means, particularly for vulnerable groups, and to what extent people have a moral responsibility to protect themselves in order to benefit from their human rights.”
On the day after the symposium, Allen spoke at the Ministry of Justice and Security in the Hague on recent legislative developments in United States and the EU related to artificial Intelligence and facial recognition.
“It is a tremendous honor to have been chosen by a major university and Europe with strengths in law and technology to receive an honorary doctoral degree,” said Allen. “The honor suggests that my concerns about normative bases and disparate impact of privacy laws resonate beyond U.S. borders. The related invitations to attend a conference dedicated to my scholarly achievements at Tilburg and to speak in the Hague have made the honorary degree all the more special.”
Allen was invited to accept the honorary degree by Prof. Dr. Geert Vervaeke, dean of TLS. In a message to Allen, Vervaeke noted that the University of Tilburg’s Board of Promotions decided to bestow the honorary degree to Allen upon the nomination by Prof. Dr. Ronald Leenes on the basis of her “high standing academic work and scholarship together with [her] engagement to enhance society.”
Allen in an internationally respected expert on privacy laws and bio-ethics and is widely recognized for her contributions to legal philosophy, women’s rights, and diversity in higher education. In 2013, she was appointed Penn’s Vice Provost for Faculty and has served on President Obama’s Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues. The author of several books on privacy and ethics, Allen has won the Lifetime Achievement Award of the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) and is a past Associate of the Johns Hopkins Humanities Center. She serves on various Boards of Directors and Advisory Boards, including those of the Forum for Cyber Resilience, EPIC, School of Criticism and Theory, and the Ethics Editorial Board, and she has been elected to the National Academy of Medicine, the American Law Institute, and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.
“As Vice Provost for Faculty, I know all too well that Penn aspires to an eminent faculty whose impact is global. I am very proud that my collaborations with my colleagues in Asia and the Middle East, as well as in Europe, have led to such a high honor,” said Allen. “Penn Law has been an ideal home.”