Data Trust

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Data trusts are a form of data sharing arrangement. They facilitate the collective setting of terms for data use on behalf of the individuals or organisations whose data rights are held in the trust.

Trust law

A Trust is a legal mechanism to manage the rights associated with an object or asset for the benefit of another person. A trust establishes a relationship in which assets or rights are "held and managed by one person or people (the trustee) to benefit another person or people (the beneficiary)".[1] In this relationship, Trustees agree to take on legal responsibilities to act for the benefit of a third party (the beneficiary), according to fiduciary duties including loyalty, prudence and impartiality.[2] Almost any right can be held in trust.[3]

Data rights held in trust

A data trust is a form of data sharing institution.[4] A data trust framework allows groups of individuals or organisations to invest their data rights in a trust, tasking trustees with negotiating terms of data use – which may be for mutual or public benefit – on their behalf.[5] This ability to enable data sharing and collective negotiation allows data trusts help address some of the limitations associated with individual consent-based approaches to data governance.[6]

Connection to other forms of data institution or data sharing frameworks

The term ‘data trust’ has sometimes been used to describe legal frameworks for data sharing that draw from concepts or structures outside trust law. These include:

  • Data commons initiatives;[7]
  • Contracts between organisations[8]
  • Personal data stores;
  • Research partnerships or collaborative agreements.

Connection to data governance policy

The concept of a ‘data trust’ as a data governance tool has its origins in debates about the privacy implications of data use[9]. Its development and application to policy challenges has drawn inspiration from the emergence of land societies as a means of facilitating collective action.[10]

A 2017 review by the UK Government recommended that policymakers and industry seek to develop “Data Trusts – proven and trusted frameworks and agreements – to ensure exchanges are secure and mutually beneficial”.[11] Since that report:

  • A white paper by the company Element AI recommended that governments, industry and civil society collaborate to develop data trusts, “especially in sectors where an absence of competition has left consumers with no viable alternative”.[12] It subsequently announced that it would be working with the Mozilla Foundation to pilot data trusts.[13]
  • A series of pilot studies by UK charity Open Data Institute has explored the feasibility of applying alternative legal structures to governing data.[14]
  • Contributing to a smart city initiative in Toronto, Sidewalk Labs proposed to establish a civic data trust to manage the data collected from a waterfront development.[15]
  • In its 2019 proposals to modernize the Personal Information Protection and Electronic Documents Act, the Canadian Government proposed to incentivize the development of data trusts as a route to encourage data-enabled innovation.[16]
  • A report by the German Federal Data Ethics Commission recommended that research and development of data trusts schemes be identified as a funding priority.[17]


  1. The Law Society (2020) Trusts, available at, accessed 7 June 2020
  2. Sitkoff, Robert H. (2019-05-27), Criddle, Evan J.; Miller, Paul B.; Sitkoff, Robert H. (eds.), "Fiduciary Principles in Trust Law", The Oxford Handbook of Fiduciary Law, Oxford University Press, pp. 40–60, doi:10.1093/oxfordhb/9780190634100.013.3, ISBN 978-0-19-063410-0, retrieved 2020-06-07
  3. Current legal problems. Vol. 63, 2010. Letsas, George., O'Cinneide, Colm. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 2010. ISBN 978-0-19-960258-2. OCLC 664325959.{{cite book}}: CS1 maint: others (link)
  4. The Open Data Institute (2018). "What is a data trust?".{{cite web}}: CS1 maint: url-status (link)
  5. Delacroix, Sylvie; Lawrence, Neil D (2019-10-01). "Bottom-up data Trusts: disturbing the 'one size fits all' approach to data governance". International Data Privacy Law: ipz014. doi:10.1093/idpl/ipz014. ISSN 2044-3994.
  6. Centre for International Governance Innovation (2018). "What is a data trust?".{{cite web}}: CS1 maint: url-status (link)
  7. Nesta (2020). "Unlocking the value in data as a commons".{{cite web}}: CS1 maint: url-status (link)
  8. Open Data Institute (2019) Data trusts: lessons from three pilots, available at
  9. Edwards, L. (2004) The Problem with Privacy, International Review of Law Computers & Technology, Vol. 18, No. 3, pp. 263-294, November 2004. Available at SSRN:
  10. Lawrence, N. (2016) Data trusts could allay our privacy fears, The Guardian, available at:
  11. UK Government (2017) Growing the artificial intelligence industry in the UK, available at:
  12. Element AI (2018) Data trusts: reinforced data governance that empowers the public Available at:
  13. Element AI (2019) Element AI and Mozilla Foundation Partner to Build Data Trusts. Available at:
  14. Open Data Institute (2019) Data trusts: lessons from three pilots, available at
  15. Sidewalk labs (2018) An update on data governance for Sidewalk labs, available at: Issues associated with this development are further explored in McDonald, S. (2019) Reclaiming data trusts. Available at
  16. Government of Canada (2019) Strengthening Privacy for the Digital Age, available at
  17. Daten Ethik Komission (2019) Opinion of the Data Ethics Commission, available at

External links

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