Data informs and dictates our life decisions, from mundane activities like grocery shopping to career and medical decisions, credit applications and social interactions.
To have a social life in today’s digitized world, one has little choice but to “consent” to all the data-capturing devices and sensors around us. To say we make informed, conscientious choices by clicking a mouse or tapping on a touch screen is a farce. A right without the opportunity to make meaningful choices cannot be called a right.
Thus, the private ownership of data, which is the basis for the current data privacy protection scheme, requires a rethink. Personal data once shared on platforms should no longer be viewed as the unencumbered private property of individuals or platforms. Instead, the data in circulation should be viewed as a public good, and data aggregators should become custodians of the public good.
Data has become and will continue to be a foundational basis for our society. It is much like the air we breathe, water we drink and electricity we depend on. Moreover, each of us is a source of data, and we all constantly contribute to data flows. Therefore, the protection of data under private law should shift to data ownership, management and regulation under public law so that data serves the public interest.
The call for a new way to think about privacy and data ownership also comes from the need to encourage innovation and address the challenge of inequality in the digital age. Recognizing the potential of open data for fueling innovation and economic growth, many civic organizations and government officials have broadly called for “data for the public good,” with some city governments, including Chicago, New York and Madison, committing to provide open government data. Public access to government data can unlock the potential of data, as has already happened with weather data and with the U.S. GPS satellite navigation system. Open data has also fueled innovation in the city transit sector, as demonstrated by the Vancouver, B.C. transit authority.