Evgeny Morozov and the “Public Domain” of Personal Information

Earlier this month, the Belorussian-American essayist Evgeny Morozov gave an interview for the podcast Soft Power, in which he gives an interesting summary of the rather iconoclastic views he defends on personal information. There, where digital activists emphasize the defense of privacy, Evgeny Morozov explains that the main issue is economic and the struggle with the digital giants (GAFAM and others) should be dealt with by considering personal information as a “public good” which will be taken from a “public domain.” He has already presented this idea in an article that appeared in the Guardian in December 2016, translated into French by Le Monde Diplomatique under the title “Pour un populisme numérique (de gauche)”.

Here is what he said in his interview with Soft Power:

“I defend this solution [of the public domain of personal information] because I don’t think one can regulate all the problems presented by Google, Facebook and others with the traditional tools of market regulation, that is, making them pay taxes and putting anti-trust laws in place […] The digital industry has the power to profoundly change all the other markets; it would be naïve to think that the information wouldn’t fundamentally rebuild the realms of health, transportation, education, etc. And also accelerate this process of automatization and data analysis, because it’s not all negative. There is nothing bad about cancers being detected faster thanks to data, but we shouldn’t do it by giving so much power to Silicon Valley companies that are held by a few billionaires.

The main good that needs to be tackled is information. If you control information, you can develop artificial intelligence, which is not to say that private companies don’t have a role to play in that. One can certainly imagine how information could be in the public domain while companies make use of it by paying for a license. There are countries where land is dealt with like that. The land belongs to the State: you can’t own it, but you can rent it to cultivate it and make use of it.

This system where information would be in the public domain would also have the advantage of truly democratizing innovation. Today, they would have us believe that innovation is within the reach of all, but this is untrue. You have four or five companies today that decide who can innovate and who can’t. For sure, you can develop a fun application in your garage, but you will never have the power to build automatic cars or invent a system that can detect cancer, because you don’t have access to the data.

A system in which information belongs to the community allows one and all to take this information to do something with it. Even at the local level, at the neighborhood scale, in order to better focus public policies, I don’t see why all this information has to pass through a big company in the United States, who uses it to create artificial intelligence on a grand scale and make money.”

There is much to say about these different propositions, but I would like to begin by highlighting the “epidermic” impression everyone must feel when they first hear the expression “public domain of personal information.” In intellectual property law, the public domain is the status when works reach the end of their period of exclusive ownership and thus become freely reusable (on condition of respecting moral rights), including commercial ends. Hence, talk of wanting to put personal information in a “public domain” is of such a nature as to evoke a certain unease, because it is unclear how personal information, which concerns the private lives and intimate affairs of individuals, could fall under such a generalized right of use. Yet Evgeny Morozov doesn’t really connect his propositions with this “metaphor” of the public domain of private property. Rather, what he describes resembles the system called “state-owned public domain,” which regulates goods owned by public persons. This system is applied notably to the usage of sidewalks and public places by businesses (temporary occupation of the public domain) while respecting certain conditions and paying a fee.

[This excerpt from a public domain article was translated from French by Zebulon Ulysses Goertzel. The original can be found here.]

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