Michigan Law welcomes rising information law expert Salomé Viljoen to faculty ranks.
Salomé Viljoen first became interested in information law when she saw how it blended her master’s degree in economics with her earnest curiosity in social policy, consumer protection, and economic justice.
Viljoen—now a rising scholar in the dynamic and fast-evolving field of technology and information law—is joining the Michigan Law faculty as an assistant professor.
She says she's grown intrigued by the technological pathways scammers, predatory lenders, and other malicious online actors use to prey on their victims.
“With concerns over surveillance and the explosion of digital technology, privacy law has become such a rich area of study for a legal scholar with so many fascinating first principles, legal questions, and pressing issues,” said Viljoen.
She is a former privacy and cybersecurity fellow at the Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University, where she also earned her JD.
With concerns over surveillance and the explosion of digital technology, privacy law has become a rich area of study with so many fascinating first principles, legal questions, and pressing issues.
Viljoen, whose master’s degree is from the London School of Economics, recently completed an academic fellowship at Columbia Law School, where she lectured on legal research and writing.
Prior to that, the South Africa-born, Nebraska-raised Viljoen served as a joint postdoctoral fellow for two years at the NYU School of Law’s Information Law Institute and Cornell Tech’s Digital Life Initiative.
Now she’s excited to bring her experience to the classroom and to her fellow faculty scholars in Ann Arbor.
“The University of Michigan is such a wonderful place to begin my career as a new legal academic,” Viljoen said.
“In addition to interacting with my colleagues at Michigan Law, I am looking forward to collaborating with faculty across campus working on questions of technology and society, including those in the computer science department and the College of Engineering, the School of Information, and the Ford School of Public Policy.”
New technologies pose novel legal questions
Viljoen has published on law, technology, and society for publications such as the University of Chicago Law Review and the Yale Law Journal, where her 2021 piece, “A Relational Theory of Data Governance,” advanced a theoretical account of data as social relations constituted by both legal and technical systems.
“As we see new stories, scandals, and international issues dealing with information law and data break, it’s clear we need deeper understanding of the legal issues at play, alongside more critical perspectives,” Viljoen said. “It’s why I plan to continue to write on questions of social data and the legal systems that structure it.”
While it is common practice for private citizens to give over information to private companies, Viljoen said this information is a powerful resource open to misuse and abuse.
However, the vast amount of information being collected can also be used for beneficial ends, such as gaining a greater understanding of carbon emissions behavior or other pressing public interest insights.
“I am interested in how the law structures these dynamics and how we might use law to minimize the harms and increase the potential positive impact of social data use,” said Viljoen, whose work also touches on areas adjacent to private law, such as speech protections and trade secrets.
Drawing legal frameworks around technology’s ever-expanding scope
Understanding technology’s increasingly fundamental role in society, Viljoen aims to extend her scholarship beyond legal reviews.
Viljoen has contributed to technical venues such as Big Data & Society and the ACM Conference on Fairness, Accountability, and Transparency.
She has also penned essays for the likes of The Guardian and Nature, where she co-authored a July 2021 opinion piece on the importance of greater public and collective control over privately held social data for the computational social science research community.
Viljoen noted that several of the world’s largest enterprises—Apple, Alphabet, and Amazon among them—are tech companies collecting and analyzing mounds of data, which then drives their business operations—and their valuations.
Now businesses in many other sectors, from pharmaceutical companies to consumer lending agencies, are trying to replicate these data-powered strategies.
“As a result, information becomes a valuable asset class and the law plays an important role in determining the properties of that asset, as well as how this growth sector can help or hurt society,” Viljoen said. “This is why this legal field is so important and why I’m devoted to translating my work for broader audiences.”
At Michigan Law, Viljoen will teach courses on contracts and privacy law.
She hopes to help students develop an enthusiasm for “thinking legally” and demonstrate how empowering it can be to understand contracts, which she calls “the bedrock of private law.”
“Law requires constant learning, and I would like to inspire that in my students while also modeling that in my own work,” Viljoen said.
—Daniel P. Smith