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Public Law & Legal Theory


Digital information is the fuel of the new economy. But like the old economy’s carbon fuel, it also pollutes. Harmful “data emissions” are leaked into the digital ecosystem, disrupting social institutions and public interests. This article develops a novel framework—data pollution—to rethink the harms the data economy creates and the way they have to be regulated. It argues that social intervention should focus on the external harms from collection and misuse of personal data. The article challenges the hegemony of the prevailing view—that the injuries from digital data enterprise are exclusively private. That view has led lawmakers to focus solely on privacy protection as the regulatory objective. The article claims, instead, that a central problem in the digital economy has been largely ignored: how the information given by people affects others, and how it undermines and degrades public goods and interests. The data pollution concept offers a novel perspective why existing regulatory tools—torts, contracts, and disclosure law—are ineffective, mirroring their historical futility in curbing the harms from industrial pollution. The data pollution framework also opens up a rich roadmap for new regulatory devices—“an environmental law for data protection”—which focuses on controlling these external effects. The article examines how the tools used to control industrial pollution—production restrictions, carbon tax, and emissions liability—could be adapted to govern data pollution.



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