The World Economic Forum's Presidio Principles

The current document identifies four user rights signatories would pledge to uphold: a right to information about the system, a right to data protection, a right to own and manage data, and a right to understand available recourse. Participation is voluntary, although the WEF reserves the right to ‘de-list’ entities found in violation of the rights. As of Friday, signatories included the United Nations’ World Food Program, the Government of Colombia, Deloitte Consulting LLP, and ConsenSys.

Why might this statement of rights and its acceptance matter? To quote King’s College’s Lief Wenar: “Rights structure the form of governments, the content of laws, and the shape of morality as many now see it. To accept a set of rights is to approve a distribution of freedom and authority, and so to endorse a certain view of what may, must, and must not be done.” (SEP, Rights.) In this sense, the articulation and broader acceptance of the document among key industry players would signal a significant alignment on such contested issues.

Yet, while the document aspires to provide a more precise common language—and does so to some extent—future iterations would be improved by drawing from the standard Hohfeldian analysis of rights to clarify the nature of the rights signatories are committing to upholding. For a given statement of rights— ‘users have a right to information about the system’—is open to four interpretations, with rights more specifically understood as claims, liberties, powers, and immunities:

As a claim. To assert that users have a right to information about the system is to assert that users have a claim to information about the system that some specific entity has a duty to provide. For example, a child’s ‘right to educational opportunity’ imposes a duty on some entity (the federal government, the state, the county, etc) to create the requisite infrastructure. Notably, two parties might agree that users have a right to information about the system, but substantially disagree on which entity bears the corresponding duty to provide it.

As a liberty. To assert that users have a right to information about the system is to assert that users are at liberty to access that information; users lack a duty to not access such information. Under this interpretation, the right would be understood akin to a homeowner’s right to paint her bedroom purple—she’s free to paint her own bedroom in a way that she is not free to paint her neighbor’s bedroom, but no one has the duty to provide her paint or equipment.

As a power. As a homeowner is free to waive others’ duty not to enter her house, or re-impose a duty to not enter, a user’s right to information to the system could be interpreted as a like power. Whether users have the power to waive their own claim to information about a system, and under what conditions, is likewise another question about their ‘right’ to be addressed.

As an immunity. As, say, an individual’s right to religious freedom can be understood as consisting in employer’s and government’s inability to impose a duty to believe upon her, a users’ right to information about the system could be understood as an immunity to others altering what she is permitted to access or know about it.

As this brief review of the analysis of rights brings out, parties who accept the Presidio Principles might nevertheless substantially disagree on what acceptance entails— which entities have the corresponding duty (so cost) associated with a right, whether such rights can be satisfied merely through non-interference, and so on. Projects should seek to clarify that their interpretation of the Presidio Principles aligns with other signatories’ and the WEF’s, so as to avoid future misunderstandings on any party’s behalf.