Philip M. Napoli
Rethinking Property Rights for User Data: Borrowing from Broadcast Regulation
Philip M. Napoli is the James R. Shepley Professor of Public Policy in the Sanford School of Public Policy at Duke University, where he is also a Faculty Affiliate with the DeWitt Wallace Center for Media & Democracy, as well as Professor of International Comparative Studies. Professor Napoli’s books include Foundations of Communications Policy (Hampton Press, 2001); Audience Economics (Columbia University Press, 2003); and Audience Evolution (2011). His most recent book is Social Media and the Public Interest: Media Regulation in the Disinformation Age (Columbia University Press, 2019).
This presentation addresses the ongoing debate about the property status of the user data gathered by social media platforms. A common contention is that individuals’ user data should be treated as their private property. Critics of this perspective note that many of the unique characteristics of user data make individual property rights either impractical or socially inefficient.
In this presentation, I argue that a potentially viable alternative approach is to treat aggregate user data as a public resource, in the same way that U.S. policymakers treat the broadcast spectrum. Treating aggregate user data as a public resource means that aggregate user data, like the broadcast spectrum, is “owned by the people.” This does not mean that it is accessible by everyone. Rather, what it means is that those entities with the privileged access to large aggregations of user data should operate as public trustees – with explicit public interest obligations – in the same way that licensees of the broadcast spectrum are regulated as public trustees and must abide by explicit public interest obligations, in exchange for access to the spectrum.