Professor Joel R. Reidenberg 1961 – 2020: A Personal Tribute

Professor Joel Reidenberg, founding Academic Director in 2005 of the Center on Law and Information Policy, at Fordham University Law School, New York, sadly died on 21st April after a two year illness. 

I first met Joel in late 1986 in London at one of my first privacy conferences. He was charming, supportive of our work, and had a lively presence. He was at the time an attorney at a leading law firm. Later when I asked him why he left to start work as an academic, he replied immediately that his new career was more interesting and as an academic, he would be in a better position to help advance privacy interests. This he did for the rest of his career, always listening to counter-arguments but when necessary refuting them on their merits.

His energy and creativity extended far beyond his academic research to practical ways to further privacy values. In the early days of the Internet, he worked to find innovative ways to filter access to websites, so that children could be protected from Internet material suitable only for adults. He was ahead of the game.

Joel conducted research for the European Commission on the state of US privacy laws (with Professor Paul Schwartz), and they argued in their 1996 book, Data Privacy Law: A Study of United States Data Protection, that a Federal Data Protection Agency should be established to assist individuals in exercising their rights, and to monitor the rapid changes in information technology. They concluded with consensus about the approach taken by the European Community’s Data Protection Directive 1995 (and later by the EU’s GDPR) that strict liability of the data exporter for personal data, and a contractual approach could, in most cases, ensure adequacy of protection in transborder data flows.

He made a substantive contribution to international policy making when he addressed the International Conference of Data Protection Authorities in Spain in September 1998 on how to avoid conflicts between different jurisdictions. He suggested a series of legal instruments for international co-operation, and proposed several strategies to achieve a high level of protection and for resolving international data transfer conflicts.

Joel bridged the gap between academic analysis and privacy advocacy with powerful arguments expressed in accessible language. In May 1999, Privacy Laws & Business won a contract with the European Commission to assess the adequacy of several third countries’ data protection laws and sectoral provisions in comparison with the EU Directive. He conducted our analysis of the EU-US Safe Harbor agreement intended to facilitate flows of personal data from Europe to the US. In May 2001 we published his powerful forensic arguments which he gave in his testimony to the US Congress on 8 March 2001. Joel argued that “the EU [Data Protection] Directive is having an important influence on privacy protection around the world and leaves Americans with legal protections as second-class citizens in the global marketplace.” We published his critique of the scheme in which he argued that the European Commission had “seriously understated the flaws in the scheme.”

However, he always accentuated the positive, illustrated by the title of his presentation at PL&B’s 15th Annual International Conference in 2002 Successfully managing international privacy relationships despite the problems of Safe Harbor or model contracts.

After a long wait, in 2015 his arguments were endorsed by the Court of Justice of the European Union, which in 2015 led to the collapse of the EU-US Safe Harbor and its replacement in 2016 by the stronger EU-US Privacy Shield. This decision showed that the EU’s acceptance of the Safe Harbor Agreement was a political decision at the time rather than a decision on its legal merits.

By December 2017, the US Department of Commerce accepted Joel as one of 16 individuals for inclusion on the list of arbitrators developed by the Department of Commerce and the European Commission as part of the EU-US Privacy Shield Framework Annex I Binding Arbitration Program.

His constant support, enthusiasm and encouragement meant that he made introductions when he saw that people had interests in common. This is how I first met Pablo Palazzi in New York in 2007, formerly Joel's Masters student and now a leading privacy lawyer in Argentina who writes and has spoken for PL&B.

Despite his illness, Joel wrote to me about our student essay competition only last year: “I just wanted to say that I thought this was a great initiative!! I recommended the competition to a number of European PhD students and think the award is an excellent showcase for up and coming data protection experts!!”

I last met Joel at the Privacy and Data Protection Commissioners’ Annual Conference in Morocco in October 2017. We had breakfast together where in a short time he told me about his latest research which emerged as Trustworthy Privacy Indicators: Grades, Labels, Certifications and Dashboards offering practical solutions on a solid academic foundation. We reviewed it in the 33rd Anniversary edition of PL&B International Report, February 2020. He always made it easy for the PL&B Team to bring to our community’s attention the most relevant academic work when it illuminated privacy issues relevant to business.

When I last spoke to Joel by phone in December, he continued to show his personal warmth and indeed optimism about the future. I am pleased to say that when Merrill, my wife, was in New York, in September, she visited Joel and his wife, Pascale, at home for a memorable amicable sunny afternoon when he was in slightly better health, as you can see in the photo above. We will certainly miss Joel and feel privileged to have known him both professionally and personally.

Stewart Dresner, Founder and Chief Executive, Privacy Laws & Business

See Professor Joel R. Reidenberg career outline.