A Free Ride: Data Brokers’ Rent-Seeking Behavior and the Future of Data Inequality

Laura Palk, Krishnamurty Muralidhar · 20 Vand. J. Ent. & Tech. 779


Historically, researchers obtained data from independent studies and government data. However, as public outcry for privacy regarding the government’s maintenance of data has increased, the discretionary release of government data has decreased or become so anonymized that its relevance is limited. Research necessarily requires access to complete and accurate data. As such, researchers are turning to data brokers for the same, and often more, data than they can obtain from the government. Data brokers base their products and services on data gathered from a variety of free public sources and via the government-created Internet. Data brokers then recategorize the existing free data and combine them with privately collected data. They sell the linked data at a profit while simultaneously preventing the public, whose data they sold, from learning how the data were gathered based on their trade secret protections. To the Authors’ knowledge, research has not explored data brokers’ rent-seeking behavior and how it will further inequality in accessing credible data—or “data inequality.” The Authors contend that without a federal mission to ensure cost-free access to personal data for research and public access purposes, data brokers’ sale of such data will potentially lead to biased or inaccurate research results. This development would further the interests of the educated wealthy at the expense of the general public. To resolve this growing data inequality, this Article recommends a variety of legal and voluntary solutions.