Data Trusts — What are they and why are they so relevant?

We are all vulnerable when online. We leak information and lose control of our data on a daily basis. We now understand more than ever, how our data is being taken, our privacy and personality exploited and their value stolen from us.

This article published in 2015 in the Guardian outlines the challenges behind our feudal data infrastructure.

How can we address this imbalance?

There are two key issues we must confront:

1) Our individual online vulnerability;
2) Our ability to share data (and information and knowledge) better.

It is of no surprise that there is growing interest in data trusts as a novel approach to data stewardship, enabling aggregated data to be an accessible public good and yet also maximising potential returns for us all as data creators.

The word ‘trust’ is often abused, and with it, our belief in those who purport to offer it. Despite legal constraints, the word and its meaning have been misappropriated and added to business names and bold sentences to reassure and provide confidence where trust is needed. A classic example of this is the political creation of name NHS Trusts in 1990, to describe organisational units within the National Health Service in England and Wales, which generally serve either a geographical area or specialised function.

In Anglo-American law, however, a trust is a legal relationship in which the legal title to property is entrusted to a person or legal entity with a fiduciary duty to hold and use it for another’s benefit. The primary duties owed are those of loyalty, prudence and impartiality.

To ensure beneficiaries receive their due returns, trustees are subject to a number of ancillary duties, including openness, transparency, record-keeping, accounting, and disclosure. In addition, a trustee has a duty to know, understand, and abide by the terms of the trust and relevant law. The trustee may be compensated and have expenses reimbursed, but otherwise must turn over all profits from the trust properties and neither endebt nor riskily speculate on the trust assets without the written, clear permission of all the beneficiaries.

Data Trustees could be an entirely new professional for the digital future.

Data trusts offer a better mechanism for trustworthy data stewardship. They allow individuals or groups to pool their data and associated rights into an entity in which the trustees are empowered to leverage data rights and take decisions about the use of the data on behalf of the data subjects and are obliged to keep the best interests of these beneficiaries in mind.

Improving the current system with bottom-up data trusts

Top down regulation is one way to reverse the power imbalance between us as online individuals (data subjects) and the data-driven businesses, corporations or governments who currently consume the data we produce for their own benefit, and often without uncomplicated transparency.

According to Prof Sylvie Delacroix, a complementary approach to top-down regulation is a bottom-up approach which can both address our vulnerabilities and simultaneously unlock responsible data sharing. Bottom-up data trusts can achieve this with three characteristics:

  1. Empowered individuals. Currently we are forced, through countless pop ups, to consent to the use of our data in return for the service provided. Every time we open a website or app these days we are forced to accept or reject the terms. Such consent-based systems are inherently flawed because:

(a) they assume that the user has enough knowledge to understand the terms and conditions that they are being asked to accept.

(b) companies seldom spell out exactly what they’ll be doing with our data.

(c) users do not really have the option to decline or negotiate.

2. Empowered groups. The real value in data is when it is aggregated. We need to be given the opportunity to pool our data, with others in a cooperative mechanism, and receive fair reward for that collective data.

3. Responsible data trustees. Trustees will be a new professional intermediary layer between us as data subjects and today’s data collectors and abusers.

We imagine a world where data trusts:

- facilitate independent stewardship of data through the action of data trustees,

- support individuals and groups to collectively negotiate terms of data use, and

- provide strong institutional safeguards against data mis-use.

Cordial World aim to develop real-world data trusts, enmeshed within the natural protections of Web 3.0 technologies, to serve individual and community needs. We recently help an informative webinar with data trusts expert Prof Sylvie Delacroix, which can be watched in full, or through small segments, here. To learn more about Cordial, support our purpose, or register your interest in our future token sale, please visit www.cordial.world and sign up.

The Data Trusts Initiative is now seeking pioneers, like the Cordial World team, to develop real-world data trusts that trial the bottom-up data trusts model in practice. Learn more here: https://datatrusts.uk/blogs/seeking-data-trusts-pioneers-funding-from-the-data-trusts-initiative-will-support-pilot-projects-to-set-up-real-world-data-trusts

Professors Sylvie Delacroix and Neil Lawrence, Data Trusts Initiative

See also:

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Cordial World Foundation

Cordial World Foundation

Cordial’s mission is to build a decentralised knowledge ecosystem, accessible by all, in which human expertise can be shared and rewarded fairly.