Property Rights in Personal Data: a book review

Property Rights in Personal Data: A European Perspective by Dr Nadezhda Purtova (Postdoctoral researcher at the European and Economic Law group at Rijksuniversiteit Groningen) is the latest in Wolters Kluwer's Information Law Series.

The topic could not be more relevant in today's digital world where so much of our daily interaction is completed online as part of an 'Information Revolution'. In Europe personal data is not considered to be property.  However, that has not prevented personal data from being treated as such by the information industry and individuals alike. For instance, an active information market has developed in respect of collecting, storing and selling databases of such data. Further, some individuals treat personal data as their own commodity and disclose it in exchange for goods, services and online social networking. Indeed, there is so much data being collected, stored and otherwise transfer in this way that a new term has been coined: 'big data'.

This text is based on Dr Purtova's PhD research at Tilburg Institute for Law Technology and Society. As such, it is a theoretical rather than a practical text. According to the publisher:
'This important new book defends the ground-breaking proposal to ‘propertise’ personal data.‘Propertisation’ arguably improves the position of a data subject to exercise control over his/her personal data by creating more effective tools of accountability and monitoring. It can also be used, the author shows, to enforce existing data protection rights as expressed in the EC Data Protection Directive (1995), Council of Europe Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms (1945) and Convention No. 108 (1981).
This book inquires to what extent the propertisation of personal data is legally possible in Europe, and examines what benefits and limitations would ensue. It provides: a systematic understanding of the developments and concerns with regard to personal data; a detailed examination of the main arguments for and against the concept of property in personal data; and a European perspective on property rights in personal data. The result is a book full of original insights that breaks new ground in addressing the problems of personal data in the European law of data protection and informational privacy'.
The text is divided into three parts. Part I sets the scene. Chapter 1 introduces the aims and coverage of the work. Chapters 2 and 3 identify current problems with personal data which could be addressed by considering personal data as a form of property. Chapter 4 is an introduction to the wider property debate. Part II considers the original US propertisation of personal data debate and seeks to glean lessons for the treatment of the issue from the European perspective. In particular, Chapter 5 suggests that the propertisation of personal data is a logical development. Chapter 6 provides an outline of the most common arguments for and against the concept of property in personal data. Part III is devoted to developing a European perspective on property rights in personal data. Chapter 7 analyses how the current European approach to data protection copes with the new complexities of the modern data flow. Chapter 8 consider the possibility of propertisation in the EU legal order under the 1995 Directive and Chapter 9 considers the permitted scope of property rights under Article 8 ECHR. Chapter 10 completes the European perspective on the idea of property rights in personal data.

Dr Purtova concludes that it is impossible to give a simple answer to whether personal data could and should be treated as property. This is because there is a multi-faceted and fluid notion to the concept of property. To that end, she recommends that Europeans should decide what rights they would prefer to have in relation to personal data and then determine whether they have to describe these rights in terms of property or not. After all, what is important is not the property label per se but the content and effect of any such rights.

Dr Purtova
This text was a very interesting read on a topic of contemporary significance. As one would expect with material which had been submitted for a higher degree, it was thorough and well researched. To get the most from this text, however, this Kat would suggest that potential readers have a general awareness of the issues surrounding the propertisation of personal data before diving in, as the text occasionally assumes previous familiarity with certain developments and theories.

Bibliographic data: xvi + 296 pages. Hardback. ISBN 9789041138026. Price £89. Rupture factor: minimal. Buy here
Putting a price on personal data: see Alan McKenna's guest katpost here.
Property Rights in Personal Data: a book review Property Rights in Personal Data: a book review Reviewed by Catherine Lee on Thursday, March 22, 2012 Rating: 5

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