Bottom-up data trusts: disturbing the one size fits all approach to data governance

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Bottom-up data infrastructure is needed to empower individuals and groups to take the reins of their data

Sylvie Delacroix

As a bottom-up empowerment structure, data trusts seek to reverse—rather than perpetuate—a data governance framework that is strikingly similar to a feudal system, whereby data subjects’ leaked data is exploited by increasingly large data controllers in a seemingly inexorable way. Laudable as they are, current regulatory endeavours to curb contractual freedom cannot by themselves reverse those power imbalances. Nor can they suffice to address the slow insidious compromising of our ability to maintain a social self that is at least partly controlled by us. Remedies for the latter ills are unlikely to be found exclusively in further, ‘one-size-fits-all,’ top-down regulation.

Our data Trust proposal aims to empower us, data subjects to ‘take the reins’ of our data in a way that acknowledges both our vulnerability and our limited ability to engage with the day-to-day choices underlying data governance. The availability of a variety of data Trusts—each reflecting a particular set of aspirations (and attitude to risk)—not only promises a degree of adaptability that top-down regulation is unlikely to match. It is also conducive to a much greater level of societal awareness and debate. As a vehicle facilitating the constructive articulation of data governance aspirations, an ecosystem of data Trusts addresses needs that are complementary to those within the reach of regulatory interventions such as the GDPR (including collective enforcement aspects). Importantly, by potentially facilitating access to ‘pre-authorized’, aggregated data (consent would be negotiated on a collective basis, according to the terms of each Trust), our data Trust proposal may remove key obstacles to the realization of the potential underlying large datasets.

To be effective, the Data Trusts we propose need to be representative of the data subjects concerns. A successful data Trust will be one whose constitutional terms better encapsulates the aspirations of a large part of the population. That Trust would, in turn, yield more influence over data controllers. This ascendancy, combined with the fiduciary responsibility of the data Trustees (as independent intermediaries, data trustees could eventually form a much needed ‘profession of the 21st Century’)  is key to rebalancing power imbalances within our current system of data governance. Seeding an ecosystem of data Trusts (ideally through a combination of public and private initiatives), together with the creation of a body of competent data Trustees, is a key component to bringing about such rebalancing.

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