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What's New
From Privacy to Public Access
By Anne Wells Branscomb
New York: BasicBooks, 1994, 241 pages

Who Owns Information? explores of the social and legal ramifications of new communication and information technologies which, in Branscomb's view, are rendering old intellectual property laws obsolete and generating new controversies over public and private domains of information. She maintains that we need to develop a new legal "infostructure" to support the growing information marketplace.

In the last two decades information has changed from a tool with which to acquire and manage assets to a valuable asset in its own right. This has occurred thanks in large part to powerful new information technologies such as fiber-optic cable, microprocessors, satellites, digital recording, and computer networks. Information, which was previously stored mainly on paper, can now be collected in vast computer databases, read by electronic laser beams, recorded in magnetic patterns invisible to the human eye, quickly aggregated and correlated, and perfectly duplicated. In many cases, the speed and accuracy of collection and correlation methods have given new value to previously worthless information, Branscomb explains, setting off unprecedented legal disputes between private citizens and information-based businesses over who owns such valuable data as a person's name, photographic image, telephone number, shopping records and medical records.

Branscomb devotes the better part of the book to a series of case studies which illustrate the inadequacy of current information laws to meet the demands of a burgeoning information economy. She devotes a chapter each to names and addresses, telephone numbers, medical histories, images, electronic messages, video entertainment, religious information, computer software, and government information. She describes, for instance, how filing a change-of-address form at the post office furnishes vast databases with personal information. Since this information has a high market value, legal questions of privacy and ownership come into play.

The challenge, according to Branscomb, is to find a balance between the need to foster new technology-based information businesses and to determine what constitutes responsible social behavior in an information society. "The line between the public and the private domains of information is a moving target," she concludes, "and will remain so for the foreseeable future, until we begin to see clearly what ethical values we choose to impose and which guiding principles we are prepared to follow. Until then, the legal infostructure will remain an impenetrable and irrational thicket of sometimes irrelevant and often unenforceable laws."