Index > Briefing
Thursday, April 22, 2021
Data Ownership as Foundation of Digital Economic Development

There are a number of issues that the U.S. car manufacturer Tesla faces recently. The most notable of which is a protest staged at an auto show which involves data protection, and this raises the question on whether consumers can obtain data related to vehicles. The use and analysis of relevant data involves the assessment of vehicle quality and the determination of responsibilities; hence this has become the focus of disputes between the two parties. From a deeper perspective, this issue actually involves the concern over data ownership. After a consumer has bought an electric car, who then owns the data generated by the usage of the vehicle? Does Tesla have the right to deny consumer's access to relevant data? Do third parties have the right to use it? These are all important issues that cannot be avoided. If we were to take it one step further, with the digital economy currently developing rapidly and the digital life slowly overtaking the market and society, the significance and impact of data ownership will become more and more apparent.

China is gradually working towards establishing and improving its legal system concerning data ownership, with laws such as the Civil Code and the Cybersecurity Law which was implemented last year both involving the ownership and protection of personal information. Personal information data as defined in the Civil Code refers to "information recorded electronically or otherwise that is capable of identifying a specific natural person, alone or in combination with other information, including the person's name, date of birth, ID number, biometric information, address, phone number, email address, health information and location information". Regarding the ownership of such personal information, the Personal Information Protection Law (PIPL) which will be reviewed, clarifies the rights of individuals in personal information processing activities, including the right to know, the right to make decisions, the right to inquire, the right to correct, the right to delete, etc. The law will strengthen the obligations of personal information processors to manage compliance, and to ensure its safety.

In the process of the digital economy's rapid development, it is noticeable that various information is being digitized. This refers to the digitization of various types of raw data which is constantly being acquired by various internet companies. Regarding the ownership of data and information, in both the EU's General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) and China's own laws and regulations, there are relatively clear definitions that do not leave much room for dispute. The controversy lies in the right to use and benefit from data-based applications such as Big Data and artificial intelligence. On the other hand, in the process where the consumers and enterprises utilize to digital products and digital services, the ownership of the newly generated data information still needs to be further clarified. Right now, large-scale international and Chinese internet companies are still taking advantage of relevant legal gaps to monetize data in various forms for their own benefits.

In regards to the Tesla incident, ownership of the data generated by individuals during the use of the product is still not clearly defined. It is because of this reason that Tesla refused to hand over the relevant data to its consumers when the incident first occurred. That being said however, judging from the current handling of the incident by the market regulators, such data are still owned by individuals; hence Tesla would be required to provide the relevant data unconditionally. This provides a study case in terms of law enforcement and serves as a reference for the future resolution of related data ownership disputes.

As for now, the digital economy is already encompassing all aspects of economic and social activities. According to the 45th Statistical Reports on Internet Development in China released by the China Internet Network Information Center (CNNIC) in April 2020, as of March 2020 the number of Chinese internet users has reached 904 million and the internet penetration rate has reached 64.5%. In addition to this, government public data, corporate data, etc. are all generating a large amount of data in increasingly popular digital socialization activities. These data are bringing both actual economic benefits and harm to enterprises and individuals.

Judging from the current anti-monopoly process for digital platform companies in China, it has become a common practice in the digital economy for internet companies to utilize unfair market competitiveness based on the data they obtained and generated. These large-scale internet platforms make use of the large amounts of data collected as their own resources and as if they were to independently own them while ignoring the rights of individuals to the data. Both Alibaba, Meituan, Ctrip and other platform companies were penalized precisely for this reason. Internationally, internet giants such as Google, Amazon, and Facebook have also become key targets for anti-monopoly supervision in various countries. The strengthening of anti-monopoly supervision of internet companies shows that the ownership of raw data involves not only personal and public interests, but also industrial development, corporate profitability models, and overall economic and social development trend choices and value orientations.

Some legal sources have pointed out that personal and social information includes not only online financial assets, online paid virtual products and other types of physical wealth, in which the ownership and usage rights can be easily clarified, but also chat information, personal photos, browsing history and shopping records, etc. where the ownership of such digital asset is difficult to be attributed. This is not only because such data not only involve people themselves, but also their relationship with digital service providers. Such data is also known as personal digital properties. Establishing the ownership and property rights system of data assets has become an important issue for the healthy development of the digital economy in the future.

The issue of data ownership is understandably controversial. This is not only because such data is not merely part of the components in the development of enterprises and the overall economy, but also involves the interests of individuals and the public. ANBOUND notes that in the development of digitalization, all kinds of information and data have public attributes. Various internet digital platforms based on these data applications also have public attributes and should bear corresponding public and social responsibilities. On the basis of clear ownership of personal data, the establishment of a public data platform should be a fundamental issue in this digital economy era.

Final analysis conclusion:

In the digital economy era, data ownership issues are continuously affecting the interests of individuals and businesses. Data ownership not only forms the basis of market and behavioral rules of the digital economy, but also determines its development direction and social value orientation. Considering these crucial roles played by data ownership, there is an urgency to improve the related rules and measures.

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