Towards a political theory of data justice : a public good perspective

Chi KWOK*, Ngai Keung CHAN

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Journal PublicationsJournal Article (refereed)peer-review

3 Citations (Scopus)


This study aims to develop an interdisciplinary political theory of data justice by connecting three major political theories of the public good with empirical studies about the functions of big data and offering normative principles for restricting and guiding the state’s data practices from a public good perspective.

Drawing on three major political theories of the public good – the market failure approach, the basic rights approach and the democratic approach – and critical data studies, this study synthesizes existing studies on the promises and perils of big data for public good purposes. The outcome is a conceptual paper that maps philosophical discussions about the conditions under which the state has a legitimate right to collect and use big data for public goods purposes.

This study argues that market failure, basic rights protection and deepening democracy can be normative grounds for justifying the state’s right to data collection and utilization, from the perspective of political theories of the public good. The state’s data practices, however, should be guided by three political principles, namely, the principle of transparency and accountability; the principle of fairness; and the principle of democratic legitimacy. The paper draws on empirical studies and practical examples to explicate these principles.

Bringing together normative political theory and critical data studies, this study contributes to a more philosophically rigorous understanding of how and why big data should be used for public good purposes while discussing the normative boundaries of such data practices.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)374-390
Number of pages17
JournalJournal of Information, Communication and Ethics in Society
Issue number3
Early online date18 Aug 2021
Publication statusPublished - 2021

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
Authors would like to thank the special issue editor Charles Ess and the anonymous reviewer for their invaluable help with earlier drafts of this article. The earlier version of the article was presented at the AoIR 2020 conference. Authors would like to thank the audience for their helpful suggestions. All errors and omissions are, of course, their own.

Publisher Copyright:
© 2021, Emerald Publishing Limited.


  • Big data
  • Data justice
  • Political theory
  • Public Good
  • The state
  • Public good


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