The Public Interest in the Data Society : Deconstructing the Policy Network Imaginary of the GDPR

Abstract: When Facebook censored the Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph The Napalm Girl, it provoked a global outcry. It also showed digital media’s ability to redefine freedom of expression and information. Redefining fundamental rights and freedoms involves drawing limits upon other fundamental freedoms and rights like the right to privacy. It is therefore crucial to study the changing role of the public interest, which ensures conditions for all to exercise fundamental freedoms and rights, including the right to privacy. This thesis aims at analysing definitions and uses of the public interest during the policymaking process of the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). The policymaking process is approached through the policy network theory (Rhodes, 2007). Policy network theory permits researchers to study norms and beliefs that drive stakeholders’ strategies to construct knowledge during the policymaking process. The construction of knowledge is influenced by a shared imaginary (Ricœur, 1984), which frames shared knowledge at the societal level. Metaphors permit tracing imaginaries. The public interest, as a metaphor defined during the policymaking process of the GDPR, enables the reconstruction of the policy network imaginary of the GDPR. I use two methods, the assessment of the degree of preference attainment (DPA) and the discourse-historical approach (DHA), which belongs to the field of critical discourse studies. Assessing DPA allows a comparison of key definitions in the texts produced during the policymaking process by different groups of actors—like Google and the European Commission—with corresponding definitions in the GDPR. The DHA permits the contextualization of definitional changes, the identification of power games within the policy network, and the reconstruction of the policy network imaginary.Results show that the policy network imaginary corresponds to a techno-economic ideology.  This ideology underlies a preconceived context, the data society, and frames societal phenomena to regulate through beliefs and norms. This ideology is taking over the public interest ideology. Technological and economic determinism drove the design of the GDPR, which limits capacities to regulate and aligns with the interest of the dominant tech and economic actors. The member states favoured specific topics related to the public interest, like security, to be implemented at the EU level, at the expense of other topics, such as freedom of expression and information, to be implemented at the national level.