It’s no secret that apps, websites and the services we use profit from our data. That’s the deal, and we submit to it every day—despite how nebulous or nefarious the terms may be. As we contribute to the data economy, we forfeit the product we help generate to a shadowy market into which we have little visibility or agency. But what if, rather than surrendering our data outright, we could share the benefits on more open, consensual terms?
The EU seems to be moving in this direction. They are looking at expanding their data governance strategy from protecting consumers to promoting data sharing through regulated markets. These markets would be set up through data trusts—entities that act as “stewards that manage people’s data on their behalf and have fiduciary duties toward clients.” Details of how this system could work are a long way off and the potential for governments profiting from the arrangement raises regulatory concerns. But the concept is compelling.
How Might Data Trusts Work?
Each of us could be provided with a universal ID to link personal data across sites, apps and other platforms. Data could then be sent to a central repository, or data trust. There, third parties could buy it and individuals could earn “data dividends” through direct payments, gifts, tax-funded benefits or something else. Rather than overbearing and invasive, use of our data could be transformed into a trusted, mutually beneficial tool that increases transparency and access.
Imagine the value of unified data that spans web services, apps, regional, industrial, and academic sources—at a global scale, across borders and platforms. Today, little opportunity exists to collect such comprehensive and unobstructed data. With such high potential and demand, the EU is eager to compete in the global market for data. In a democracy, buy-in at this scale will likely require more than scant compensation. Strengthening trust, privacy and personal ownership will be crucial, and are considered key to the future of EU data markets.
Transparency and Personal Control Drive Trust and Participation
If the EU is successful in advancing data trusts, they may become the model for future platforms. To build trust (and supply), careful thought should be given not just to the inherent vulnerabilities, but to aligning incentives to the level of risk and intrusion. Innovation around privacy, ownership, control and pricing could help strike that balance.
Each of us should own our data. What’s more, we deserve standardized tools to control its collection. Sites and services should disclose participation in data markets and provide opt-in/out mechanisms, such as the cookie popups in place under GDPR. We should be able to self-manage and even encrypt our data with personal keys to protect it from widespread exposure. And we should be able to assist in validating, authorizing and potentially tracking its use through blockchain technology.
Ideally, an individual could also control the value of their own data. Through auction systems and tiered pricing, people could maintain and enforce a minimum and relative value for their data. For example, you might set a higher price for personal shopping data than energy consumption. Similarly, with more granular controls in place, users could change pricing based on the buyer. You could, for example, allow lower prices for charities or research groups. Allowing user control over pricing would be complex, but would encourage participation. This would provide a meaningful and deserved layer of control, help form a more realistic valuation of personal data at scale and potentially steer its use in ways that better represent people’s interests.