Is your data your personal property?

Back in 2006, mathematician Clive Humby described data as 'the new oil', and the phrase has had widespread currency ever since. 

Like oil, data is a rich resource, available in vast quantities, and extremely valuable if processed and used in the right way. Over the last few years, this comparison, amongst other things, has led to the perception that an individual's data should be regarded as their own personal property. 

Privacy initiatives such as the GDPR have given internet users control over what data are held on them and the way it's used; meanwhile Mark Zuckerberg, for example, has repeatedly stated that Facebook users 'own' the content they post.

What’s your data worth?

But can data really be personal property? Certainly, data has a clear monetary value. Major tech platforms such as Google and Facebook are essentially selling personal data when allowing advertisers to target particular types of individuals. The same applies when hackers sell logins to online criminals.

In the past few years, there have been attempts to establish online marketplaces that, unlike the major players, actually pay users for their personal data.

DataCoup, for example, describes itself as the 'world's first personal data marketplace', and pays people for their personal and financial data. Users choose which categories of information they share, with the data anonymised and then sold on to brokers and advertisers. 

And while many privacy regimes around the world allow users to see and control their data, some believe this should be taken further. In the US, for example, proposed bills such as the Own Your Own Data Act of 2019 have called for social media companies to pay users for their personal data; California governor Gavin Newsom has made similar suggestions.

Is data real?

But while this idea might seem to make sense, it's fraught with problems. For a start, it's legally tricky to extend property protections to data which is, obviously, intangible - or so you might think. 

In fact, there is some measure of debate. In 2017, for example, Oxford University's Jeffrey Ritter and Anna Mayer of the University of Vienna posited that all data - industrial, fictional or personal - is not merely an abstract entity but has a physical existence as an electronic signal. 

Here’s what they conclude:

"Data is physical, tangible matter, no different in its essential attributes than any other physical property (for which humankind has developed robust, mature, and functional property right systems, such as those governing real property, commodities, or manufactured goods)."

However, this is, as you might expect, a minority view. 

And in any case, individual personal data isn't actually worth all that much, making it relatively pointless to regard it as property. Facebook, for example, has an average revenue per monthly active user of just $6.95; the value of a user's data would be a fraction of that. 

A system where companies were required to pay users for their data would be a bureaucratic nightmare, normalising billions of micropayments, while netting users only a trivial amount.   

It could also weaken existing privacy protections by making it harder for users to understand where, how and by whom their data was being used.

More importantly, there's the question of whether your personal data can be property at all. Much of it is and always has been in the public domain: few people would suggest that you should be paid a royalty every time someone uses your name. 

While the idea of treating data as property seems to pop up regularly, it's never really gained traction - and there are good reasons for that.