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Privacy as a Common Good in the Digital World

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This article seeks to broaden our understanding of online privacy in three ways: first, by drawing out the differences between the physical world and the digital world as those differences affect privacy; second, by exploring how the concept of the 'commons' might help us to understand social and economic relationships in cyberspace; and third, by analysing two contrasting views of privacy: privacy as a private or individual good and privacy as a common good. In order to analyse similarities and differences in privacy in the physical world and the online world, each is assessed in three ways: the obvious level of privacy available; the possibility of modifying that level of privacy to create or choose more or less privacy for oneself; and the degree to which the, prior or contemporaneous, privacy decisions of others affect the amount of privacy that is available to all. Applying an analysis based on the 'tragedy of the commons', the article concludes that at least part of cyberspace can be conceived as a 'commons' and that personal information flows could be considered a 'common pool resource' within that commons. Based on the likely calculations that individuals and organizations will make about collection and uses of personal information, the article next evaluates what would be the most effective policy approach to ensure that the common pool resource of personal information is not overused and degraded. The article concludes that a policy approach of providing individuals with a private means, either through property rights or some means of redressing their grievances, is unlikely to provide an effective means of protecting the common pool resource of personal information. A policy approach that acknowledges the common good basis of privacy and views personal information as a common pool resource provides an alternative view of the policy problems and offers suggestions in terms of rules and institutions that may be effective in addressing those problems.
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Keywords: COMMONS; CYBERSPACE; INTERNET; PRIVACY

Document Type: Regular Paper

Publication date: September 1, 2002

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