The headline “We Can’t Trust Uber” in the New York Times drove dozens of emails and IMs toward me today from friends, acquaintances, and students. “Did you see this?” “Looks like trust is becoming hot.”
True enough, there seems to be a growing awareness of the power of data, and the ubiquity of surveillance and data capture as qualities of our lives in a wired society. But the article’s authors, an information professor at UNC and a professor of organizations and management at Northwestern University, offer a radical proposal on how to define and execute the role of government in the 21st century.
Alarmed by the power of data capture, they embrace an idea originally discussed in New Republic by Jonathan Zittrain—developing “information fiduciaries” that would track the usage of personal information and act as custodians of the records of how personal information is used and, apparently, enable individuals to exercise greater control over the options for how that use is achieved.
That concept of a “trusted third party” is not new to the structure of commerce or the management of information. But what is radical was the additional suggestion in today’s article that the function of these industrial players would be “backed by laws that ensure” individual control of data collection is sustained.
Somehow, the authors conclude that outcome would be no different than the EU’s regulatory architecture for privacy and data protection. But the notion of mandatory governmental controls imposed on a business that has not yet emerged is beyond radical; indeed, it is endorsing the government shaping and regulating from day one an entirely new industry.
The governance of how personal data is collected and used must evolve differently. No nation state (or federation) can impose that level of governance; instead, as with all innovation, the solution must find support within the market, both among the sellers of the solution and the buyers. Yes, as with other utilities, there may be a justification for a partnership between the public interests and those delivering the services, but this is not the time in history for that evolution.
Instead, someone must create the business model that makes it appealing for the individual consumer to sign up and place their trust in a custodian of their personal data, who can then become a broker for the usage of that information. The key will be for that service to be embedded in the Internet of Things data collection devices, so that, when I buy the device, I am also buying the trusted brokerage control of my data.
That is appealing as a private sector initiative, but it is not a solution which governments can impose. To try and do so will be to merely build obstructionist walls that limit the movement of data around the world and across national borders which would, in fact, be economically corrosive to the interests of the companies and the citizens of that country.
So, trust is hot; trust is uber hot. But to impose government into the global challenge of building digital trust is to assure the failure of the initiative.