James Whitman, is a Yale law professor specializing in comparative law, author most recently of the intruiguing Harsh Justice: Criminal Punishment and the Widening Divide Between America and Europe. Here is part of the introduction to a 2004 law review article called Two Western Cultures of Privacy: Dignity versus Liberty (abstract here; full text in .pdf format here) which compares American and European ideas of privacy.
The introduction has some nice general observations. Here they are, stripped of legalese and footnotes:
To the Europeans, indeed, it often seems obvious that Americans do not understand the imperative demands of privacy at all. The Monica Lewinsky investigation, in particular, with its numerous and lewd disclosures, led many Europeans to that conclusion. But the Lewinsky business is not the only example: There are plenty of other aspects of American life that seem to Europeans to prove the same thing. Let me offer a variety of examples from France and Germany, two countries that have been my focus in recent research, and that are my focus in this Article as well. Some of the things that bother French and German observers involve what Americans will think of as trivialities of everyday behavior. For example, visitors from both countries are taken aback by the ill-bred way in which Americans talk about themselves. As a French article warns visitors to the United States, America is a place where strangers suddenly share information with you about their "private activities" in a way that is "difficult to imagine" for northern Europeans or Asians. Americans have a particularly embarrassing habit, continental Europeans believe, of talking about salaries. It is "normal in America," an Internet site informs German tourists, for your host at dinner to ask "not just how much you earn, but even what your net worth is" –topics ordinarily quite off-limits under the rules of European etiquette. Talking about salaries is not quite like defecating in public, but it can seem very off-putting to many Europeans nevertheless.
But it is not just a matter of the boorish American lack of privacy etiquette. It is also a matter of American law. Continental law is avidly protective of many kinds of "privacy" in many realms of life, whether the issue is consumer data, credit reporting, workplace privacy, discovery in civil litigation, the dissemination of nude images on the Internet, or shielding criminal offenders from public exposure. To people accustomed to the continental way of doing things, American law seems to tolerate relentless and brutal violations of privacy in all these areas of law. I have seen Europeans grow visibly angry, for example, when they learn about routine American practices like credit reporting. How, they ask, can merchants be permitted access to the entire credit history of customers who have never defaulted on their debts? Is it not obvious that this is a violation of privacy and personhood, which must be prohibited by law?
These are clashes in attitude that go well beyond the occasional social misunderstanding. … When it comes to privacy, there are plenty of European practices that seem intuitively objectionable to Americans. Some of these have to do with seemingly minor aspects of the anthropology of everyday life, most especially involving nudity. If the Europeans are puzzled by the ill-bred way in which Americans casually talk about themselves, Americans are puzzled by the ill-bred way in which Europeans casually take off their clothes. Phenomena like public nudity in the parks of German cities are particularly baffling to Americans, but so are phenomena like the presence of female attendants in men’s washrooms. It is genital nudity that Americans find most bizarre: One’s genitalia are "privates" in the full sense of the word in America, and one does not ordinarily expose them in public, and certainly not before the opposite sex. Even breasts are supposed to be kept covered in the United States–as the occasional female European tourist has discovered, when arrested (or even jailed!) for sunbathing topless on an American beach. ("Those Americans are Out of Their Minds!" howls a headline from a Swiss tabloid reporting one such incident from Florida.) Even American advertising, which doesn’t stop at much, doesn’t show bare breasts.
Public nudity may seem little more than a curiosity (though we shall see that it raises revealing problems in the European law of privacy). But here again, it is not just a matter of norms of everyday behavior; it is a matter of law. There are numerous aspects of European law that can seem not only ridiculous, but somewhat shocking to Americans. For example, continental governments assert the authority to decide what names parents will be permitted to give their children–a practice affirmed by the European Court of Human Rights as recently as 1996. This is an application of state power that Americans will view with complete astonishment, as a manifest violation of proper norms of the protection of privacy and personhood. How can the state tell you what you are allowed to call your baby? Nor does it end there: In Germany, everybody must be formally registered with the police at all times. In both Germany and France, inspectors have the power to arrive at your door to investigate whether you have an unlicensed television. Evidence that Americans would regard as illegally seized is routinely considered in continental adjudication. In France and Germany, according to a recent study, telephones are tapped at ten to thirty times the rate they are tapped in the United States–and in the Netherlands and Italy, at 130 to 150 times the rate. All of this will make many an American snigger at the claim that Europeans have a superior grasp of privacy. What kind of "privacy" is there, Americans will ask, in countries where people prance around naked out of doors while allowing the state to keep tabs on their whereabouts, convict them on the basis of unfair police investigations, peer into their living rooms, tap their phones, and even dictate what names they can give to their babies?
Evidently, Americans and continental Europeans perceive privacy differently.