Yesterday, the world lost a marvelous human being, Joel Reidenberg: a scholar, a pioneer in the tech policy/tech law area, a mentor, a friend, and—most of all—a mensch.
I first met Joel around 1995 or 1996, when he spent his sabbatical in my department at Bell Labs Research. Amusingly enough, he was a neighbor of mine then; he lived around the corner, though we had not met. I wasn’t doing much in the way of law and policy at the time, but he somehow realized that I was interested—and when I moved to academe in 2005, he immediately started inviting me to his roundtables and seminars. (Ironically enough, one of the earliest invitations I received from him was to a 2006 address on network neutrality by someone who was out of the public limelight at the time, one William Barr…)
Joel seemed to know everyone. Through him, I got to meet people I’d never otherwise have encountered, including appellate court judges and major public figures. But again, he knew everyone—and that was because he was happy to meet anyone. I could and did bring my students to his roundtables, which were normally for considerably more senior participants, but if I told him they had interesting and relevant things to say, he was glad to have them attend. He judged people for who they were, not for their rank or position.
He was a scholar, and knew the field thoroughly. I once mentioned to him a fairly obscure Pennsylvania court case from 25 years earlier, and he knew the citation to it. I don’t think I ever mentioned any reference to him that he wasn’t already familiar with. Yes, I of course knew the technical details better, but he probably knew technology better than I know law.
I learned from him. Even when he was ill, he had many useful comments on my legal writing, up to and including on a draft paper I’m working on right now. He also pointed me to two important and relevant papers of his—and a co-author on one of those was a former PhD student of mine, someone Joel had first met at one of the roundtables I mentioned. I cited an old book on privacy; Joel put it in its proper context and pointed me at other pioneers, people I’d never heard of who were doing prescient privacy work in the 1960s. I spent my last sabbatical, the 2018-2019 academic year, at Fordham Law in the hope that I could work closely with him, and learn from him.
Joel was a pioneer. As many others have noted, he was among the first to realize that software itself effectively creates laws. In a 1996 article, Lex Informatica, he wrote that “the set of rules for information flows imposed by technology and communication networks form a ‘Lex Informatica’ that policymakers must understand, consciously recognize, and encourage.” This insight is even more true today.
His influence continues. Just 10 days ago, I referred someone to him. Just today, I saw a news story I wanted to send to him, to get his opinion. I’m sure that that will continue.
Curiously enough for a privacy advocate, Joel was very open about his illness. We never discussed his odds, though I’m sure he knew they weren’t good. But he was always cheerful and always joking about it. In my last email exchange with him, I teased him that he was “practicing social distancing and masks and gloves before it was cool”. He replied in kind, saying “I guess I was avante garde on health issues too. 😃”, even though in the same note he mentioned that he was at the start of a rough period after a second bone marrow transplant.
I’ll miss Joel, his family will miss him, and the broader community will miss him.
Blessed is the true judge — ברוך דיין אמת.