In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Big Data and International Law

  • Introduction
  • Characteristics and Challenges of Big Data
  • Ramifications of Big Data for International Law and International Relations
  • Big Data for International Legal Research, Regulation, and Practice

International Law Big Data and International Law
Fleur Johns, Leah Grolman
  • LAST REVIEWED: 10 March 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 March 2019
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199796953-0176


It has become a truism that data are now bigger than ever before: that is, information assembled and “used for reference, analysis, and calculation,” especially information in digital form, has increased in volume, variety, and velocity to unprecedented levels, “typically to the extent that [their] manipulation and management present significant . . . challenges” (OED Online, s.v. “data (n.),” and “big (adj. and adv.)”). In the field of international law, there is growing scholarly interest in the phenomenon of “big data”—used here in the singular, as a mass noun—and what it might mean in and for international law, international institutions, and international legal work. For the most part, however, that scholarship is being pursued under auspices other than that announced by this article. No subfield of international legal scholarship answerable to the title “Big Data and International Law” has yet emerged. Moreover, given the diversity of data types, analytical techniques, and technological settings evoked by the term big data, it is far from clear that any subfield so named could acquire or retain coherence. Accordingly, this bibliography assembles a somewhat piecemeal collection of works that are likely to be helpful to those embarking upon research in big data and international law, broadly understood. It includes work by scholars who identify as international lawyers and understand themselves to be researching in that field. It also includes writings that cannot be so described, but that are works by which international legal scholars interested in big data might usefully be informed. Also included are works that take a comparative and/or transnational approach to the analysis of legal issues for big data and big data issues for law. Some of the scholarship referenced might be regarded as offshoots of scholarship on (international) law and technology, but that is not the case in all instances. Some scholars have acquired a curiosity about operations of big data on international law by proceeding from other starting points: by following developments in particular substantive areas of international legal work, for instance, or by pursuing epistemological and/or theoretical inquiries in relation to which the advent of big data throws up thorny challenges. The headings proceed, more or less, from the general to the particular and from the introductory to the specialized. Earlier references are more meta-analytical in scope and tend to foreground discipline-wide dilemmas, epochal changes, and epistemological shifts. Later, the bibliography highlights some key subfields in which inquiries surrounding big data and international law are burgeoning, including in the conduct of international legal research. In all respects, this bibliography should be treated as indicative rather than exhaustive.

Characteristics and Challenges of Big Data

This section presents a small selection of texts that introduce the nonspecialist reader to particular characteristics of “big data” and the questions and challenges that it raises. The term “big data” often refers not only to the absolute size of data sets involved—usually large, even vast compared with smaller, more orderly digital and quantitative data types—but also to those analytic and representational techniques that tend to be applied to them. Indeed, boyd and Crawford 2012 explains that big data is “less about data that is big than it is about a capacity to search, aggregate, and cross-reference large data sets” (p. 663). Kitchin 2014a also situates big data within the concept of “data” (alongside other types of data, including small data, open data, and linked data) and provides an overview of the techniques associated with, or described by, the term “big data.” Kitchin 2014b puts forward a refined and oft-cited definition of “big data,” and surveys various ways in which it has been defined, from “trite proclamations” to “sophisticated ontological assessments.” The literature in this section also examines big data’s impacts, and potential benefits and risks, in various spheres, including in relation to the economy and the production of knowledge, as in Kitchin 2014b (also cited under Big Data for International Legal Research, Regulation, and Practice) and Mayer-Schönberger and Cukier 2013. Much of the literature (and the global press) focused at first on a somewhat binary account of, on one hand, the potential and, on the other, the risks of big data—accounts which are summarized usefully in boyd and Crawford 2012. The four pieces in this introductory section move beyond such accounts to introduce more complex questions and engagements with the transformations that big data may be wreaking.

  • boyd, danah, and Kate Crawford. “Critical Questions for Big Data: Provocations for a Cultural, Technological, and Scholarly Phenomenon.” Information, Communication & Society 15.5 (2012): 662–679.

    DOI: 10.1080/1369118X.2012.678878

    This widely cited article was pioneering in approaching big data as a “cultural, technological, and scholarly phenomenon.” The authors review utopian and dystopian accounts of the potential for using data traces generated or “left behind” by people, and then go beyond those to pose six provocative questions about complex changes being effected by big data on, for example, our understanding of objectivity and accuracy.

  • Kitchin, Rob. The Data Revolution: Big Data, Open Data, Data Infrastructures & Their Consequences. London and New York: SAGE, 2014a.

    A readable account of new data “infrastructures” and “assemblages” and how these might change prevailing ways of making sense of and in the world. This book is also a useful exploration of the concept of “data”; techniques associated with big data; ways in which industry and government are justifying the use of big data; concerns about big data from legal, political, social, and ethical perspectives; and areas for further research.

  • Kitchin, Rob. “Big Data, New Epistemologies and Paradigm Shifts.” Big Data & Society 1.1 (April–June 2014b): 1–12.

    This article provides a refined, and oft-cited, definition of “big data.”

  • Mayer-Schönberger, Viktor, and Kenneth Cukier. Big Data: A Revolution That Will Transform How We Live, Work, and Think. Reprint. London: John Murray, 2013.

    This book is a lay-friendly exploration of how big data is changing aspects of the way we process and understand information in multiple fields (e.g., education, medicine, government, business). The authors argue that big data enables “predictions,” based on observable patterns and correlations rather than causal analyses; it tells us “what” is happening but not “why.” The authors also explore ethical dangers and legal considerations attending the misuse of, or misguided reliance on, big data.

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