Digital Rights are Human Rights

The Digital Freedom Fund counted down to Human Rights Day 2020 with a series of short posts. Each post was written by a guest author and illustrates how the Universal Declaration of Human Rights applies in the digital age. The full series can be viewed here.

The right to own property

UDHR Article 17

The “accept all cookies” button: a recurring and pesky interruption that we quickly dispose of before continuing to use the internet. But clicking this button is not as trivial as it might seem.

Cookies are small pieces of information that we generate while surfing the internet. They are designed to make website use easier for us. However, cookies can store important personal information: our internet habits, our location, our financial details, and even our names.

By clicking the button, we agree to share our data with the website. These data are valuable, as companies can use them to send us targeted advertising or in other ways tailor their services towards us.

Such practices raise a number of concerns, particularly when if you consider just how often we click that button. Firstly, we don’t really know what happens to the data. Who sees, controls and uses them?

Secondly, if the data have economic value, what are we getting in return? Is an improved surfing experience really a fair compensation?

One way to resolve these issues is to institute a property right over data. Property rights are the cornerstone of economic empowerment, personal and economic security, and overall prosperity in a society. If we have the right to own and reside in our homes or to enjoy the fruits of our labour, should the same not apply to data?

Data ownership seems appealing, as it provides us with clear legal tools to assume full control over who uses our data and what we get back in return.

However, there are some pitfalls to such a solution. We live in a world of unequal economic, informational and bargaining power. The chances are that when we exchange data, we are interacting with a big corporation, with all its economic and legal might behind it. In this case, how much say do we really have in such interactions? Would our current position really improve if our data were recognised as our property? Would property rights be a fix for these imbalances, or would they just formalise and entrench the status quo?

The solution could be found halfway. In intellectual property, concepts like fair use or compulsory licenses exist precisely to provide some balance in cases of economic and other inequalities. Therefore, if property rights over data are introduced, they should be crafted in a way that properly reflects the person’s economic and privacy interests.

As a principle, the person should be guaranteed a way to monitor the use of their data even beyond the point of initial transfer, and the ability to rescind the consent for the use of data when their essential personal interests are at stake. By providing the abilities of oversight and partial control over the data, the economic and legal imbalances previously mentioned could be, to some extent, alleviated.

By Ivan Stepanov, PhD Researcher at the Max Planck Institute for Innovation and Competition.