Regulation of the private sphere in Germany and in other industrialised countries is premised on the principle of self-determination. In the context of their private, social and business life, individuals make decisions that bind them contractually and through which they assume liability risks, acquire property rights, disclose data, etc.

That said, the freedom to shape a person’s own living conditions in a legally enforceable manner presupposes that private actors can actually make their own free and self-determined decisions. Networking and digitalisation are changing the framework conditions in which self-determination in this context takes place today. Operating in a digital, networked environment has an impact on the core areas of private law, as individuals are exposed to new services, opportunities and contractual relationships but also to new risks.

The answer to the question whether the law must consider this process a paradigm shift in social reality that mandates its adjustment to that reality, or rather, whether some traditional legal concepts (such as the individualistic image of human beings) must be preserved nonetheless, might ultimately depend on the viewer’s perspective. Various legal areas may be applied while scrutinizing the effects of digital networks on private law. At the same time, fully understanding these effects requires an interdisciplinary analysis of their legal, technical, and social aspects.

The open research questions are dealt with at the Weizenbaum Institute by three research groups:


The first research group examines the use of data as a means of payment. It focuses on the conditions for the application of a market model in the case that personal data is being exchanged in lieu of more conventional forms of payment. In this context, one central question is how traditional rules of contract law should be applied and perhaps adjusted in order to appropriately preserve the desired operation of both the law and digital markets.

In a complementary way, the second research group will work on data-based business model innovations. For instance, as individual products (such as automobiles) used to be at the focus of innovation processes in the past, the development of new, digital business models today (such as data-based mobility services) is becoming at least as important. A third research group will deal with the responsibility of the various actors in the context of the so-called Internet of Things.

In the medium and long term, the aim is to create the basis for a theory of self-determination in digital markets. Such a theory will consider both the premises and consequences of self-determined action by private individuals and the opportunities of innovative companies in digital markets.