The Public Trust in Data

The Public Trust in Data
AZIZ Z. HUQ*
Personal data is no longer just personal. Social networks and perva-
sive environmental surveillance via cellphones and the Internet of Things
extract minute by minute details of our behavior and cognition. This in-
formation accumulates into a valuable asset. It then circulates among
data brokers, targeted advertisers, political campaigns, and even foreign
states as fuel for predictive interventions that shape individuals’ lives, of-
ten for the worse. Rich gains f‌low to f‌irms that are best positioned to le-
verage these new information aggregates. The privacy losses, economic
exploitation, structural inequalities, and democratic backsliding pro-
duced by personal data economies, however, fall upon society at large.
This Article proposes a novel regulatory intervention to mitigate the
harms that result from transforming personal data into an asset. States
and municipalities should create public trusts as governance vehicles
for their residents’ locational and personal data. An asset in public trust
is owed and managed by the state—although it can be in the physical
custody of private actors. The state can permit its use, and even allow
limited alienation, provided that doing so benef‌its a broad public rather
than a handful of f‌irms. Unique among the legal interventions proposed
for new data economies, a public trust for data allows a democratic pol-
ity to durably commit to public-regarding management of its informa-
tional commons, coupled to judicially enforceable limits on private
exploitation and public allocation decisions. At the same time, because
data remains in the physical custody of private actors, state actors can-
not use it for undemocratic or repressive ends. The public trust itself is a
common law doctrine of ancient roots. It was revived in the Progressive
Era as an instrument to protect public assets against private exploitation.
Both federal and state courts, including the U.S. Supreme Court, have
since endorsed a variety of doctrinal formulations. The result today is a
rich repertoire of rules and remedies for the management of commonly
held property. Personal data, usefully, has many similarities to assets
long managed by public trust. And familiar justif‌ications for creation of a
public trust logically extend to personal data. Indeed, municipalities in
the United States, Europe, and Canada have started to experiment with
limited forms of a public trust in data. Generalizing from those
* Frank and Bernice J. Greenberg Professor of Law, University of Chicago Law School. © 2021,
Aziz Z. Huq. Thanks to Lee Fennell, Sonia Katyal, Aneil Kovvali, Randy Picker, and Eric Posner—as
well participants in a Chicago Works-in-Progress workshop––for comments. Further thanks to
Richmond Blake, Clare Saunders, Allie Jensen, Jesus Rodriguez, Darren James, Nicholas Yacoubian,
and other editors at The Georgetown Law Journal for their excellent work. All errors are mine. The
Frank J. Cicero Fund provided support for research on this paper.
333
experiences, this Article offers a proof of conceptfor how personal
data economies can be leashed through the public trust form—a mecha-
nism for minimizing private harms while preventing abusive state action.
TABLE OF CONTENTS
INTRODUCTION . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 335
I. OUR DATA AND THE ECONOMIES IT MAKES . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 340
A. THE PRE-HISTORY OF OUR DATA ECONOMIES . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 340
B. THREE CONTEMPORARY ECONOMIES OF PERSONAL DATA. . . . . . . . . . 343
1. Platforms Economies. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 344
2. Data Brokers . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 346
3. Sensing Nets . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 348
II. THE DISCONTENTS OF PERSONAL DATA ECONOMIES . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 349
A. PRIVACY................................................ 350
B. AUTONOMY .......................... ................... 353
C. RETAIL ECONOMIC EXPLOITATION . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 355
D. STRUCTURAL ECONOMIC INEQUALITY . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 357
E. DEMOCRATIC BACKSLIDING. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 361
F. STATE DOMINATION. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 363
G. THE UNDERPRODUCTION OF PUBLIC GOODS . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 364
H. THE COSTS OF PERSONAL DATA ECONOMIES RECAPITULATED . . . . . . 367
III. GOVERNANCE REGIMES FOR PERSONAL DATA. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 369
A. PERSONAL PROPERTY IN DATA. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 370
B. DATA GOVERNANCE THROUGH FIDUCIARY DUTIES . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 374
C. STRUCTURAL ANTITRUST REMEDIES . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 377
D. THE REGULATORY GAP IN PERSONAL DATA ECONOMIES . . . . . . . . . . . 380
IV. THE PUBLIC TRUST IN DATA . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 380
A. THE PUBLIC TRUST DOCTRINE AS A RESOURCE FOR GOVERNANCE . . . 381
B. FITTING DATA WITHIN A PUBLIC TRUST FRAMEWORK . . . . . . . . . . . . . 387
334 THE GEORGETOWN LAW JOURNAL [Vol. 110:333
1. Data Is an Archetypal Public Trust Asset . . . . . . . . . . . . . 387
2. The Justif‌ications for the Public Trust Doctrine Apply to
Personal Data . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 391
C. IMAGINING THE PUBLIC TRUST IN DATA . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 394
1. Jurisdictional Choice for a Public Trust in Data . . . . . . . . 394
2. Creating a Public Trust in Data . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 395
3. Use Limitations Under a Public Trust . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 397
4. Enforcing a Public Trust . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 399
CONCLUSION . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 402
INTRODUCTION
Personal data is no longer just personal. Social networks, websites, cellphones,
and an Internet of Things extract minute by minute details of our behavior and cog-
nition. These are warehoused and circulated among data brokers, advertisers, politi-
cal campaigns, and even foreign states. As it moves, this data accumulates into a
valuable asset. It feeds the machine-learning algorithms that allow Amazon to pre-
dict purchases, Netf‌lix to estimate views, and governments to anticipate crime. Its
predictions drive interventions such as targeted advertising; prompts to digest politi-
cal disinformation; or decisions to arrest suspects, deny bail to some, and keep yet
more behind bars. Rich rewards f‌low to f‌irms well positioned to leverage these new
information aggregates. Dominant social platforms in the United States today have
a market capitalization of more than four trillion dollars.
1
But these new affordances
come with a price. The personal data economy’s toll is felt in lost privacy, economic
vulnerability for workers, swelling structural inequality at the social level, and a
drip-fed corrosion of democratic values. The solutions commonly proposed to amel-
iorate these harms include, to date, the creation of individual property rights to per-
sonal data and the reinvigoration of antitrust law. But all these solutions are
necessarily partial in ambition. None decisively rewire the growing concentration of
wealth and income in dominant f‌irms. None clearly redound to the benef‌it of all
users creating value through their tracked activity at the front end.
This Article proposes a novel regulatory intervention to mitigate the harms of
personal data economies and to advance the public’s privacy, equality, and eco-
nomic interests. States and municipalities, it contends, should create public
trustsas governance vehicles for their residents’ personal data. An asset in pub-
lic trust is owned and managed by the state in trust for the general public. Such an
1. STIGLER CTR. FOR THE STUDY OF THE ECON. AND THE STATE, UNIV. OF CHI. BOOTH SCH. OF BUS.,
Policy Brief, in STIGLER COMMITTEE ON DIGITAL PLATFORMS: FINAL REPORT 6, 6 (2019), https://www.
chicagobooth.edu/-/media/research/stigler/pdfs/digital-platforms—committee-report—stigler-center.
pdf [https://perma.cc/4YYG-PS9C].
2021] PUBLIC TRUST IN DATA 335

To continue reading

Request your trial

VLEX uses login cookies to provide you with a better browsing experience. If you click on 'Accept' or continue browsing this site we consider that you accept our cookie policy. ACCEPT