Regulating Data as Property: A New Construct for Moving Forward

By: Jeffrey Ritter and Anna Mayer

The global community urgently needs precise, clear rules that define ownership of data and express the attendant rights to license, transfer, use, modify, and destroy digital information assets. In response, this article proposes a new approach for regulating data as an entirely new class of property.

Recently, European and Asian public officials and industries have called for data ownership principles to be developed, above and beyond current privacy and data protection laws. In addition, official policy guidances and legal proposals have been published that offer to accelerate realization of a property rights structure for digital information. But how can ownership of digital information be achieved? How can those rights be transferred and enforced?

Those calls for data ownership emphasize the impact of ownership on the automotive industry and the vast quantities of operational data which smart automobiles and self-driving vehicles will produce. We looked at how, if at all, the issue was being considered in consumer-facing statements addressing the data being collected by their vehicles.

To formulate our proposal, we also considered continued advances in scientific research, quantum mechanics, and quantum computing which confirm that information in any digital or electronic medium is, and always has been, physical, tangible matter. Yet, to date, data regulation has sought to adapt legal constructs for “intangible” intellectual property or to express a series of permissions and constraints tied to specific classifications of data (such as personally identifiable information.

We examined legal reforms that were recently approved by the United Nations Commission on International Trade Law to enable transactions involving electronic transferable records, as well as prior reforms adopted in the United States Uniform Commercial Code and Federal law to enable similar transactions involving digital records that were, historically, physical assets (such as promissory notes or chattel paper.

Finally, we surveyed prior academic scholarship in the U.S. and Europe to determine if the physical attributes of digital data had been previously considered in the vigorous debates on how to regulate personal information or the extent, if at all, that the solutions developed for transferable records had been considered for larger classes of digital assets.

Based on the preceding, we propose that regulation of digital information assets, and clear concepts of ownership, can be built on existing legal constructs that have enabled electronic commercial practices. We propose a property rules construct that clearly defines a right to own digital information arises upon creation (whether by keystroke or machine), and suggest when and how that right attaches to specific data though the exercise of technological controls.

This construct will enable faster, better adaptations of new rules for the ever-evolving portfolio of data assets being created around the world. This approach will also create more predictable, scalable, and extensible mechanisms for regulating data and is consistent with, and may improve the exercise and enforcement of, rights regarding personal information. We conclude by highlighting existing technologies and their potential to support this construct and begin an inventory of the steps necessary to further proceed with this process.
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Cite: 16 Duke L. & Tech. Rev. 220

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