Data Pollution

56 Pages Posted: 12 Jun 2018 Last revised: 23 Aug 2018

See all articles by Omri Ben-Shahar

Omri Ben-Shahar

University of Chicago Law School

Date Written: June 1, 2017


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, diminishing the privacy of the people whose information is used. It claims that a central problem in the digital economy has been largely ignored: how the information individuals give affects others, and how it undermines and degrades public goods and interests. The data pollution metaphor offers a novel perspective why existing regulatory tools-torts, contracts, and disclosure law-are ineffective, mirroring their historical futility in curbing the external social harms from environmental pollution. The data pollution framework also unfolds up a rich roadmap for new regulatory devices-an environmental law for data protection-that focuses on controlling these external effects. The article examines whether the general tools society has long used to control industrial pollution-production restrictions, carbon tax, and emissions liability-could be adapted to govern data pollution.

Suggested Citation

Ben-Shahar, Omri, Data Pollution (June 1, 2017). University of Chicago Coase-Sandor Institute for Law & Economics Research Paper No. 854, U of Chicago, Public Law Working Paper No. 679, Available at SSRN: or

Omri Ben-Shahar (Contact Author)

University of Chicago Law School ( email )

1111 E. 60th St.
Chicago, IL 60637
United States

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