Should all data be freely traded?

Open data has been an ambition of the European Union for several years now. 

A report from the European Data Portal a few years ago projected that the market would be worth some €75 billion by now. It went on to highlight that adoption was varied across Europe, with progress generally limited due to various political and legal barriers in place.

A sign of the progress made since then was demonstrated by the launch of a new European data governance strategy, which highlights the desire for the EU to facilitate the use and even the monetization of citizens’ data. The strategy paper outlines a five-year program of measures and investments that the European Commission will roll out over the coming years. The strategy is significant as it marks a pivot away from being purely interested in protecting citizens’ data.

The new European data strategy seems to focus on the principle of promoting data sharing among citizens almost as a civic duty.

Arguably the landmark development in the strategy is the development of a pan-European marketplace for our personal data via a data trust, which will manage citizen’s data on their behalf.

Europe’s Trusts Project

The project underlines the value inherent in data, and how the EU regards citizen’s personal data as a key asset for the continent. The notion that the utilization of this data is something citizens should be compelled to give up pro bono, however, undermines any intentions to regulate the industry. At the same time, it’s also beholden upon the Commission to govern the data in such a way as to successfully engender trust in the project among citizens.

The first milestone in the strategy is The Trusts Project, which aims to be implemented by 2022. It has a relatively meager budget of just €7 million but aims for that money to go far, with the development of a pan-European pool of both personal and non-personal data.

The Trusts Project will provide a one-stop-shop for governments, businesses, and other organizations that want to access data about European citizens.

As one might expect after the successful rollout of GDPR, there are limits to the project, not least in the imposition that global tech giants will be unable to store or even move Europeans’ data. Rather, they will only gain access to that data through the auspices of the Trust.

A data trust for 500 million EU citizens

Each citizen will be able to collect what the Commission refers to as ‘data dividends’, which are not especially well defined but are believed to include the potential for monetary or other payments from organizations that make use of their personal data. 

The hope is that the 500 million or so citizens of the EU will help to produce arguably the most valuable data resource in the world.

Having so much personal data held on public servers and managed by data trusts has obvious security implications, and the Commission claims to be working to ensure the most robust security measures will be in place to protect citizen’s data. It’s clear that their overriding aim, however, is to help European governments and organizations really extract value from the huge quantity of data generated across the continent, with this ultimately benefiting citizens via the delivery of better services.

The use of data trusts to help securely liberate data was proposed by Sir Tim Berners Lee a few years ago, and it’s a concept that has attracted considerable support. The principle is similar to that of the kind of trusts used to manage things like property, and data trusts can be used for profitable or charitable means. 

There have already been a few data trusts developed, with companies like Mastercard and IBM leading the way to help manage clients’ data in the UK and Canada. It’s also a concept that’s being piloted in India to help spur the growth of their technology industry. The inspiration for the EU project comes via Austria, however, who track the information produced about and by citizens via unique identifiers, with the data ultimately stored in public repositories.

Of course, there is no guarantee that the use of data trusts will provide citizens with the kind of transparency they wish for, and each trust is only as strong as the governance that underpins it. In an institution as inherently political as the EU, there is the risk of certain factions gaining more influence over the governance than others, so the devil will almost certainly be in the detail.

A fundamental change for the privacy landscape

This is especially so given the historic friction between public and private sectors, with the EU already issuing numerous fines against American tech giants on anti-trust grounds. There are concerns, therefore, that privacy might be something that’s foregone in an attempt to maximize the utility of the Trust for the organizations and governments that seek to capitalize on it.

We’ve already seen Alphabet’s Sidewalk Labs project hit the buffers after the Canadian government ruled that the trust established to oversee data from the smart city project would give the company undue control over citizens’ data. India’s project has encountered similar opposition after it emerged that the government would gain unrestricted access to the personal information of citizens.

The concept is still in an early stage, and it’s likely that they will eventually come to resemble pension funds, with high levels of regulation to ensure citizens’ rights are not abused. It is unquestionable, however, that the Trusts Project will fundamentally change the privacy landscape not only in Europe, but also globally, and as a result is something that everyone with an interest in privacy should be keeping a close eye on.

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