Philosophy & Technology

, Volume 31, Issue 2, pp 213–233 | Cite as

The Biopolitical Public Domain: the Legal Construction of the Surveillance Economy

  • Julie E. CohenEmail author
Research Article


Within the political economy of informational capitalism, commercial surveillance practices are tools for resource extraction. That process requires an enabling legal construct, which this essay identifies and explores. Contemporary practices of personal information processing constitute a new type of public domain—a repository of raw materials that are there for the taking and that are framed as inputs to particular types of productive activity. As a legal construct, the biopolitical public domain shapes practices of appropriation and use of personal information in two complementary and interrelated ways. First, it constitutes personal information as available and potentially valuable: as a pool of materials that may be freely appropriated as inputs to economic production. That framing supports the reorganization of sociotechnical activity in ways directed toward extraction and appropriation. Second, the biopolitical public domain constitutes the personal information harvested within networked information environments as raw. That framing creates the backdrop for culturally situated techniques of knowledge production and for the logic that designates those techniques as sites of legal privilege.


Surveillance Informational capitalism Biopolitics Public domain Data Big data Personal information Postcolonialism 



My personal thanks go to Mireille Hildebrandt and Frank Pasquale and participants in the Fordham Center on Law & Information Policy faculty workshop, the Georgetown-Maryland Privacy Faculty discussion group, the 2015 Privacy Law Scholars Conference for their helpful comments, and Aislinn Affinito, Peter Gil-Montllor, Alex Moser, and Sean Quinn for research assistance.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Georgetown University Law CenterWashingtonUSA

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