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Aileen Nielsen, Taboo and Technology: Experimental Studies of Data Protection Reform, 26 N.Y.U. J. Legis. & Pub. Pol'y 349 (2024).

Abstract: Decades after data-driven consumer surveillance and targeted advertising emerged as the economic engine of the internet, data commodification remains controversial. The latest manifestation of its contested status comes in the form of a recent wave of more than a dozen state data protection statutes with a striking point of uniformity: a newly created right to opt out of data sales. But data sales as such aren’t economically important to businesses; further, property-like remedies to privacy problems have long and repeatedly been debunked by legal scholars, just as the likelihood of efficient privacy markets has been undercut by an array of experimental findings from behavioral economics. So, why are data sales a dominant point of focus in recent state legislation? This work proposes a cultural hypothesis for the recent statutory and political focus on data sales, and explores this hypothesis with an experimental approach. Inspired by the taboo trade-offs literature, a branch of experimental psychology looking at how people handle morally uncomfortable transactions, this work describes two experiments that explore reactions to data commodification. The experimental results show that selling data is far more contested than selling a traditional commodity good, suggesting that selling data fits within the domain of a taboo transaction. Further, various potential modifications to a data sale are tested, but in each case the initial resistance to the taboo transaction remains. The experimental results show a robust resistance to data commodification, suggesting that newly enacted state-level sales opt-out rights provide a culturally powerful balm to consumers. The results also suggest a new framework for analyzing economic measurements of privacy preferences, suggesting a new possibility for interpreting those findings in light of the tabooness of data commodification. More broadly, the normative implications of the results suggest the need for culturally-responsive privacy reform while keeping an eye to the possibility for taboos to distort technology policy in ways that ultimately fail to serve consumer protection interests.