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Scroll to Top: Who Owns Your Digital Footprints?

As we become more dependent on electronic devices, the digital footprints we leave behind become more extensive and visible. Service providers are keen to keep track of users’ activities, using this information to push ads and tailor content to individuals’ preferences. Users have reason to be concerned when faced with the question of who owns their digital footprints: themselves or the service providers?

The Legal Framework

Several laws apply to the ownership of digital footprints, including privacy and data protection regulations and intellectual property rights. Europe’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), for example, declares that personal data belongs to the person to whom it pertains. Companies that process personal data must explain the reasons for collecting it, obtain explicit consent, and rectify or delete the data if required.

The Digital Footprint as Property

Some legal scholars advocate for the recognition of the digital footprint as a form of property. According to this view, users should be able to control their digital footprint, deciding who accesses this data and who profits from it. Property rights would also allow individuals to monetize their digital footprint, creating new revenue streams by selling access to their data or providing targeted advertising.

Current Practice

The current state of things, however, tends to favor service providers, who are always on the lookout for ways to leverage user data. While users can opt-out of some data collection procedures, it’s often difficult to understand what they’re agreeing to when they sign up for apps or websites. The language is dense and technical, and users may not have time to trawl through pages of terms and conditions.

Moreover, even when consent is given, users may not be aware of how their data is being used. A study by The University of California found that most users are shocked when they find out about the extent to which their data is being shared. This lack of transparency harms users and creates a skewed power imbalance between them and service providers.

Privacy and the Law

The Right to Privacy

The right to privacy is enshrined in Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights. The GDPR also recognizes privacy as a fundamental right. Service providers are, therefore, required to respect users’ privacy by limiting the collection and processing of personal data to what is strictly necessary.

The Limits of Privacy Protection

Privacy protection does have limits, however. Security considerations may mean that law enforcement agencies need access to personal data to prevent serious crimes. The GDPR includes a provision for public interest exceptions, which allow for data to be used without consent where failure to do so would result in serious injury or death.

Data Protection and Ownership

The GDPR and Data Ownership

The GDPR establishes the principle that personal data belongs to the person to whom it pertains. This means that individuals have control over their data, and service providers are required to obtain explicit consent for its collection and processing. Individuals can also request access to the data held about them and request that it be deleted if there are no compelling reasons to retain it.

Intellectual Property Rights and Ownership

Intellectual property rights cover creations of the mind, including inventions, literary and artistic works, and symbols, names and images used in commerce. Digital footprints may not fit neatly into any of these categories, but could be argued to be a form of expression. In such a case, they could be protected by copyright or trademark law, affording individuals ownership rights.

The Future of Digital Footprints and Ownership

The Role of Regulation

The legal landscape surrounding digital footprints is shifting as regulators scramble to keep pace with technological advancements. The GDPR was a step in the right direction and has been emulated by other countries, such as Brazil and South Africa. However, more needs to be done to ensure that users are fully informed about the data being collected and how it’s being used.

The Potential of Blockchain

Blockchain technology has the potential to revolutionize how digital footprints are owned and managed. Blockchain’s decentralized, tamper-proof setup could give users greater control over their data, reducing the need for intermediaries such as social media companies. Companies such as Opiria and Datawallet are already exploring this area, creating platforms that allow individuals to sell their data directly to interested parties.

The Need for Education

Finally, it’s vital that users are educated about the data they’re generating and the potential consequences of sharing it. This means creating clear, user-friendly terms and conditions and increasing awareness of the right to privacy and data protection. Only by knowing their rights and the value of their data can users make informed decisions about who owns their digital footprints.


The issue of who owns digital footprints will continue to be a contentious one, with users, service providers, and regulators all jockeying for position. While the legal framework is in place to protect privacy and data ownership, practicalities and practises lag behind. Only by keeping abreast of technological advancements, ensuring the enforceability of existing regulations, and educating users can we resolve this issue once and for all.

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