Wednesday, May 13, 2015

How to use private data for public benefit

I've been away, writing. 28 days, 167 draft pages. Probably 50-60 more to go.
And just yesterday, working on something else, I think I've figured out what I'm trying to say.

We need a theory of data for the public good if civil society is going to continue to thrive in the digital age.

In law and economics there are theories of the commons. Theories of the public domain. Theories of civil society. And theories that bring some of these together.  We have theories of privacy and theories of data privacy. At least one theory of intellectual privacy. We have economic definitions of public goods and philosophical frames for thinking about the common good.

We have principles of free expression and free assembly (association). These theories become real in the form of legal precedent and/or lived practice.

Right now we have a full spectrum of ways to give private digital data to other enterprises - most of us do it all day, every day, when we use our phones or networked computers. But these are commercial actions in most cases - we "pay" for the use of various services with our data. So we have a range of ways to give private data for private (corporate) benefit. What we don't have agreement on is how to give away private data for public benefit.

Twenty-one years after Netscape Navigator opened the Internet door for most of us and a decade since we all got mobile phones, basic principles for private and public ownership and use of digital data are still not settled.  We are all over the map in practice, innovation, legislation, and legal standing, regarding what and when digital data are private and owned, how we might choose to share them, when we might want to give them away, and what the recipients of these "gifts" can do with them. We have no consensus on meaningful time horizons for digital assets - are they perpetually private or public? Should there be time limits of some sort?

Civil society and philanthropy currently operate on formal rules around private donations of time and money. Definitions of public purpose. Opportunities for perpetual gifts. The formal rules that guide civil society (in the USA) have come from the Bill of Rights, corporate law, and the tax code.  But they are increasingly going to need to intersect with domains of digital law - from telecommunications to intellectual property, genetic splicing to spectrum licensing.

For civil society to thrive, we need to develop theories and working practices for ownership, use, and governance of digital assets so that we as individuals can donate them for public benefit.

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