Bottom-up data Trusts: disturbing the ‘one size fits all’ approach to data governance

Sylvie Delacroix and Neil D Lawrence at International Data Privacy Law: “From the friends we make to the foods we like, via our shopping and sleeping habits, most aspects of our quotidian lives can now be turned into machine-readable data points. For those able to turn these data points into models predicting what we will do next, this data can be a source of wealth. For those keen to replace biased, fickle human decisions, this data—sometimes misleadingly—offers the promise of automated, increased accuracy. For those intent on modifying our behaviour, this data can help build a puppeteer’s strings. As we move from one way of framing data governance challenges to another, salient answers change accordingly. Just like the wealth redistribution way of framing those challenges tends to be met with a property-based, ‘it’s our data’ answer, when one frames the problem in terms of manipulation potential, dignity-based, human rights answers rightly prevail (via fairness and transparency-based answers to contestability concerns). Positive data-sharing aspirations tend to be raised within altogether different conversations from those aimed at addressing the above concerns. Our data Trusts proposal challenges these boundaries.

This article proceeds from an analysis of the very particular type of vulnerability concomitant with our ‘leaking’ data on a daily basis, to show that data ownership is both unlikely and inadequate as an answer to the problems at stake. We also argue that the current construction of top-down regulatory constraints on contractual freedom is both necessary and insufficient. To address the particular type of vulnerability at stake, bottom-up empowerment structures are needed. The latter aim to ‘give a voice’ to data subjects whose choices when it comes to data governance are often reduced to binary, ill-informed consent. While the rights granted by instruments like the GDPR can be used as tools in a bid to shape possible data-reliant futures—such as better use of natural resources, medical care, etc, their exercise is both demanding and unlikely to be as impactful when leveraged individually. As a bottom-up governance structure that is uniquely capable of taking into account the vulnerabilities outlined in the first section, we highlight the constructive potential inherent in data Trusts. This potential crosses the traditional boundaries between individualist protection concerns on one hand and collective empowerment aspirations on the other.

The second section explains how the Trust structure allows data subjects to choose to pool the rights they have over their personal data within the legal framework of a data Trust. It is important that there be a variety of data Trusts, arising out of a mix of publicly and privately funded initiatives. Each Trust will encapsulate a particular set of aspirations, reflected in the terms of the Trust. Bound by a fiduciary obligation of undivided loyalty, data trustees will exercise the data rights held under the Trust according to its particular terms. In contrast to a recently commissioned report,1 we explain why data can indeed be held in a Trust, and why the extent to which certain kinds of data may be said to give rise to property rights is neither here nor there as far as our proposal is concerned. What matters, instead, is the extent to which regulatory instruments such as the GDPR confer rights, and for what kind of data. The breadth of those rights will determine the possible scope of data Trusts in various jurisdictions.

Our ‘Case Studies’ aim to illustrate the complementarity of our data Trusts proposal with the legal provisions pertaining to different kinds of personal data, from medical, genetic, financial, and loyalty card data to social media feeds. The final section critically considers a variety of implementation challenges, which range from Trust Law’s cross-jurisdictional aspects to uptake and exit procedures, including issues related to data of shared provenance. We conclude by highlighting the way in which an ecosystem of data Trusts addresses ethical, legal, and political needs that are complementary to those within the reach of regulatory interventions such as the GDPR….(More)”.