The diverging philosophical roots of U.S. and E.U. privacy regimes

For those in the privacy scholarship community, there is an awkward truth that European data protection law is going to a different direction from U.S. Federal privacy law. A thorough realpolitical analysis of how the current U.S. regime regarding personal data has been constructed over time to advantage large technology companies can be found in Cohen’s Between Truth and Power (2019). There is, to be sure, a corresponding story to be told about EU data protection law.

Adjacent, somehow, to the operations of political power are the normative arguments leveraged both in the U.S. and in Europe for their respective regimes. Legal scholarship, however remote from actual policy change, remains as a form of moral inquiry. It is possible, still, that through professional training of lawyers and policy-makers, some form of ethical imperative can take root. Democratic interventions into the operations of power, while unlikely, are still in principle possible: but only if education stays true to principle and does not succumb to mere ideology.

This is not easy for educational institutions to accomplish. Higher education certainly is vulnerable to politics. A stark example of this was the purging of Marxist intellectuals from American academic institutions under McCarthyism. Intellectual diversity in the United States has suffered ever since. However, this was only possible because Marxism as a philosophical movement is extraneous to the legal structure of the United States. It was never embedded at a legal level in U.S. institutions.

There is a simply historical reason for this. The U.S. legal system was founded under a different set of philosophical principles; that philosophical lineage still impacts us today. The Founding Fathers were primarily influenced by John Locke. Locke rose to prominence in Britain when the Whigs, a new bourgeois class of Parliamentarian merchant leaders, rose to power, contesting the earlier monarchy. Locke’s political contributions were a treatise pointing out the absurdity of the Divine Right of Kings, the prevailing political ideology of the time, and a second treatise arguing for a natural right to property based on the appropriation of nature. This latter political philosophy was very well aligned with Britain’s new national project of colonialist expansion. With the founding of the United States, it was enshrined into the Constitution. The liberal system of rights that we enjoy in the U.S. are founded in the Lockean tradition.

Intellectual progress in Europe did not halt with Locke. Locke’s ideas were taken up by David Hume, whose introduced arguments that were so agitating that they famously woke Immanuel Kant, in Germany, from his “dogmatic slumber”, leading him to develop a new highly systematic system of morality and epistemology. Among the innovations in this work was the idea that human freedom is grounded in the dignity of being an autonomous person. The source of dignity is not based in a natural process such as the tilling of land. It is rather based in on transcendental facts about what it means to be human. The key to morality is treating people like ends, not means; in other words, not using people as tools to other aims, but as aims in themselves.

If this sound overly lofty to an American audience, it’s because this philosophical tradition has never taken hold in American education. In both the United Kingdom and Britain, Kantian philosophy has always been outside the mainstream. The tradition of Locke, through Hume, has continued on in what philosophers will call “analytic philosophy”. This philosophy has taken on the empiricist view that the only source of knowledge is individual experience. It has transformed over centuries but continues to orbit around the individual and their rights, grounded in pragmatic considerations, and learning normative rules using the case-by-case approach of Common Law.

From Kant, a different “continental philosophy” tradition produced Hegel, who produced Marx. We can trace from Kant’s original arguments about how morality is based on the transcendental dignity of the individual to the moralistic critique that Marx made against capitalism. Capitalism, Marx argued, impugns the dignity of labor because it treats it like a means, not an end. No such argument could take root in a Lockean system, because Lockean ethics has no such prescription against treating others instrumentally.

Germany lost its way at the start of the 20th century. But the post-war regime, funded by the Marshall plan, directed by U.S. constitutional scholars as well as repatriating German intellectuals, had the opportunity to rewrite their system of governance. They did so along Kantian lines: with statutory law, reflecting a priori rational inquiry, instead of empiricist Common Law. They were able to enshrine into their system the Kantian basis of ethics, with its focus on autonomy.

Many of the intellectuals influencing the creation of the new German state were “Marxist” in the loose sense that they were educated in the German continental intellectual tradition which, at that time, included Marx as one of its key figures. By the mid-20th century they had naturally surpassed this ideological view. However, as a consequence, the McCarthyist attack on Marxism had the effect of also purging some of the philosophical connection between German and U.S. legal education. Kantian notions of autonomy are still quite foreign to American jurisprudence. Legal arguments in the United States draw instead on a vast collection of other tools based on a much older and more piecemeal way of establishing rights. But are any of these tools up to the task of protecting human dignity?

The EU is very much influenced by Germany and the German legal system. The EU has the Kantian autonomy ethic at the heart of its conception of human rights. This philosophical commitment has recently expressed itself in the EU’s assertion of data protection law through the GDPR, whose transnational enforcement clauses have brought this centuries-old philosophical fight into contemporary legal debate in legal jurisdictions that predate the neo-Kantian legal innovations of Continental states.

The puzzle facing American legal scholars is this: while industrial advocates and representatives tend to disagree with the strength of the GDPR, arguing that it is unworkable and/or based on poorly defined principle, the data protections that it offer seem so far to be compelling to users, and the shifting expectations around privacy in part induced by it are having effects on democratic outcomes (such as the CCPA). American legal scholars now have to try to make sense of the GDPR’s rules and find a normative basis for them. How can these expansive ideas of data protection, which some have had the audacity to argue is a new right (Hildebrandt, 2015), be grafted onto the the Common Law, empiricist legal system in a way that gives it the legitimacy of being an authentically American project? Is there a way to explain data protection law that does not require the transcendental philosophical apparatus which, if adopted, would force the American mind to reconsider in a fundamental way the relationship between individuals and the collective, labor and capital, and other cornerstones of American ideology?

There may or may not be. Time will tell. My own view is that the corporate powers, which flourished under the Lockean judicial system because of the weaknesses in that philosophical model of the individual and her rights, will instinctively fight what is in fact a threatening conception of the person as autonomous by virtue of their transcendental similarity with other people. American corporate power will not bother to make a philosophical case at all; it will operate in the domain of realpolitic so well documented by Cohen. Even if this is so, it is notable that so much intellectual and economic energy is now being exerted in the friction around a poweful an idea.


Cohen, J. E. (2019). Between Truth and Power: The Legal Constructions of Informational Capitalism. Oxford University Press, USA.

Hildebrandt, M. (2015). Smart technologies and the end (s) of law: Novel entanglements of law and technology. Edward Elgar Publishing.