Online Feature

Data Types, Data Doubts & Data Trusts

João Marinotti

Data is not monolithic. Nonetheless, the word is frequently used indiscriminately—in reference to a number of distinct concepts. It may refer to information writ large, or specifically to personally identifiable information, discrete digital files, trade secrets, and even to sets of AI-generated content. Yet each of these types of “data” requires different governance regimes in commerce, in life, and in law. Despite this diversity, the singular concept of data trusts is promulgated as a solution to our collective data governance problems. Data trusts—meant to cover all of these types of data—are said to promote personal privacy, increase corporate transparency, facilitate the sharing of data, and even pave the way for the next generation of artificial intelligence. These anticipated benefits, however, require the body and flexibility of equitable trust law and its inherent fiduciary relationships for their fruition. Unfortunately, American trust law does not allow for the existence of such general data trusts. If anything, the judicial, academic, and legislative confusion regarding data rights—or data’s status as property—demonstrates that discussions of data trusts may be ignoring a key element. Without first determining whether (or what kind of) data can be recognized as a trust res (i.e., as trust property) under existing law, it may be premature to accept data trusts as the private law solution to data governance. If, on the other hand, the implementation of data trusts requires legislative intervention, its purported benefits must be analyzed in contrast to the myriad other new and evolving data governance frameworks that would similarly require legislation. By analyzing existing trust law and the difficulties of defining data rights, this essay highlights the urgent need to pursue doctrinally, legislatively, and technologically viable data governance strategies.