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Privacy Perspectives | A farewell to Joel Reidenberg: Mentor, scholar, mensch Related reading: IAPP launches Ian Kerr Memorial Lecture Series




7, 20

Sharp, witty and with a constant glint of humor in his eyes, Joel Reidenberg was not one to shy away from a good polemic. When Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia gave a speech belittling the significance of online privacy, even calling it “silly,” Reidenberg assigned his Fordham University law students a practical exercise: See what personal information you can find about the justice on open sources online. The result — a 15-page dossier rife with sensitive information — so unsettled Scalia that he berated the professor as having “abominably poor judgment.” Reidenberg beamed. In the best Talmudic tradition of using your counterparty’s argument against him, Reidenberg proved his point while delivering the students a “teaching moment.”

Indeed, Reidenberg could fight fire with fire.

Joel Reidenberg

Reidenberg kept his vitality and humor to the bittersweet end. It was bitter, because he fought a long and relentless battle against leukemia, sharing throughout it extensive personal and health details with his friends and colleagues. His frequent letters were incredibly uplifting, rich with puns and metaphors, and very revealing — irrespective of his expertise as a privacy guru. He loved to conclude them with his favorite quotes, referring in one letter, for example, to Winston Churchill saying, “When you are going through hell, keep going!” It was sweet because, despite the crushing isolation that COVID-19 forced on many hospital patients, Reidenberg passed away with his beloved wife, Pascale, and two children by his side.

In my privacy journey, I crossed paths with Reidenberg frequently. He was a New Yorker who studied in France and had deep love and passion for Israel. I, an Israeli who studied in France and had a longtime fondness for New York. We had common friends in Tel Aviv, colleagues in New York, and associates in Paris, London and Brussels. We even worked at the same law firm in New York, Debevoise & Plimpton.

From my first days in privacy, Reidenberg was a friend and a mentor, a people’s person who could make connections and introductions across languages, disciplines and nationalities. He was a scholar among academics, a lawyer among practitioners, a policymaker among regulators, incredibly versatile, and always gracious and intellectually curious, treating every JD student and research fellow as he would a prominent professor or judge. As many people who knew him said, he was a real mensch. Few if any academics can boast his ability to excel as an entrepreneur — he founded Fordham’s thriving Center on Law and Information Policy; or as an executive — he served as the president of the university’s faculty senate and as associate vice president for academic affairs; and, of course, as a scholar.

And excel as a scholar he did.

In fact, Reidenberg was so ahead of his time that some of his literature from the 1990s can still be considered pathbreaking now. In 1997, a few years before Lawrence Lessig published "Code and Other Laws of Cyberspace," Reidenberg wrote "Lex Informatica" about the law of the machine. Few articles in our space have so successfully weathered the test of time. Its references to architecture standards as engulfing norms and values and to automated self-execution as replacing regulatory enforcement were a precursor to today’s concepts of privacy by design and algorithmic accountability.

His 2003 piece, "Privacy Wrongs in Search of Remedies," identified the U.S. Federal Trade Commission and the state attorneys general as important privacy enforcers, while condemning the U.S. system for overreliance on market self-regulation and structural deficiencies that necessitate passage of a federal privacy law. His long-term criticism of European data transfer regulation and the EU-U.S. Safe Harbor accurately predicted the constant political and legal strife between the two trading blocks and called for a more stable solution, which would provide much-needed certainty for businesses and robust protections for individuals’ data. He was also early to identify and write about thorny issues, such as online personal jurisdiction, student privacy and education technologies, consent mechanisms and user interfaces, national security and surveillance, privacy in public and more. 

Reidenberg’s absence will be felt on both sides of the Atlantic. It takes decades to build the reputation and stature that he has had as a diplomat, thought leader, executive and scholar. Fortunately, he is succeeded by more than one generation of students and protégés that have gone on to assume roles as judges, professors, regulators and chief privacy officers in at least four continents and a dozen countries around the world.

I feel blessed to be one of them, and like all of them, I will greatly miss Joel.    

Photo by Yousef Espanioly on Unsplash

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