Posts de Pascale Garbaye

Pascale Garbaye

Personal data and commons : a mapping of current theories

This article was originally published in french by calimaq in november the 15th


At the end of October, I wrote an article entitled « Evgeny Morozov and personal data as public domain » .
I got a lot of feedback, including from people who had never heard about that kind of theories, trying to break with the individualistic or « personalist » approach based on the current law about the protection of personal data, to think/rethink about its collective dimension.
Actually, there are many theories which, I think, can be divided into four groups, as I tried to show with the mindmap below (clik here to view the full map)

The four groups of theories are, as follows (some make a direct link between personal data and commons, while others establish an indirect link) :

  • Free software theories (indirect link) : personal data are not directly connected with common goods, but digital commons should be developed (particularly free software) in order to regain control on them. Furthermore, we must go back to a decentralised framework of the web and encourage a service-based economy if we want the Internet to be preserved as a common good, to prevent abuses of personal data and to limit the ascendance of state supervision.
  • Collectivist theories (indirect link) : personal data are not directly connected with common goods, but we have to allow people to pool and share them safely or to implement collective actions in order to defend individual rights (class action lawsuits, specific unionism, etc.).
  • Commoners theories (direct link) : the legitimate status of personal data has to be changed to secure its collective dimension and recognize it as a common good (for example, grant a common good status to « social graph » or  » network of related data »). This will make it possible to rethink the governance of personal data as a « bundle of rights ».
  • Public sphere theories (direct link) : the legal status of personal data has to be changed to recognize its nature as a public good. This will enable States to weigh on digital platforms, particularly by submitting them to new forms of taxation, or by creating public organizations to enhance collective control on data.

I tried to make sub-divisions for each of those four theories and to give concrete examples. If you’d like more information, you’ll find links at the end of every « branch ».

I’m not saying this typology is perfect, but it has allowed me to better apprehend the small differences between the various positions. It can be noted that some of the authors appear in different theories, which proves that they are compatible or complementary.

Personally, I tend to be part of the commoners’ family, as I have already said in this blog.

Feel free to comment if you think of more examples for this map or if you think this typology could be improved in any way.