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


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.

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    Within the U.S. legal system, the definitive treatment of these questions is Johnson v. M’Intosh, 21 U.S. 543 (1823).

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    Intelius, “About,”; TowerData, “Enhance Your Email List with Email Intelligence,”; CoreLogic, “Data: Breadth and Depth,”

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    Hearing before the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation, “What Information Do Data Brokers Have on Consumers, and How Do They Use It?”, 113th Cong., 1st Sess., December 18, 2013 (statement of Tony Hadley, Senior Vice President of Government Affairs and Public Policy, Experian).

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    Gros’s later periodization (from industrial to managerial and then financial capitalism) ignores the underlying transformative importance of the sociotechnical shift to informationalism as a mode of development; Zuboff’s important formulation (surveillance capitalism) nonetheless ignores certain other important dimensions of informational capitalism, particularly those that revolve around intangible intellectual property entitlements.

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    Richard M. Smith, “The Web Bug FAQ,” Nov. 11, 1999,

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    See, for example, Hearing before the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science & Transportation, “Spyware,” 109th Cong., 1st Sess., May 11, 2005 (statement of Trevor Hughes, Executive Director, Network Advertising Initiative); Hearing before the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, “Combating Spyware: H.R. 29, the SPY Act,” H.R. No. 109–10, 109th Cong., 1st Sess., January 26, 2005, pp. 17–14 (statement of Ira Rubinstein, Associate General Counsel, Microsoft Corporation).

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    See, for example, U.S. Federal Trade Commission, “Protecting Consumer Privacy in an Era of Rapid Change” (2012),; White House, “Consumer Data Privacy in a Networked World: A Framework for Protecting Privacy and Promoting Innovation in the Global Digital Economy” (2012),

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    For some examples, see Oracle, Press Release, “New Oracle Data Cloud and Data-as-Service Offerings Redefine Data-Driven Enterprise,” July 22, 2014, (unprecedented intelligence”); Spokeo, “About,” (“proprietary merge technology”); Intelius, “About,” (“proprietary genomic technology”); ID Analytics, “Company Overview,” (“patented analytics”).


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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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Correspondence to Julie E. Cohen.

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Julie E. Cohen is Mark Claster Mamolen Professor of Law & Technology, Georgetown Law.

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Cohen, J.E. The Biopolitical Public Domain: the Legal Construction of the Surveillance Economy. Philos. Technol. 31, 213–233 (2018).

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