Decentralizing A Broken Data Ownership System
How Blockchain Could Ensure that The Dividends of Data Are Enjoyed By All, Not Just Big Tech
When the dot-com bubble came crashing down, it left many once-hyped internet companies completely decimated and caused people to question whether the internet would ever live up to its billing. Those that survived wasted no time in banding together to showcase by holding annual conversations around ‘the web as a platform’ as part of the Web2.0 summit.
The second generation of the internet was born.
According to O’Reilly, the Web2.0 summit’s founders, the principle that would guide the internet as it grew into the first decade of the 21st century would be:
The value of the software is proportional to the scale and dynamism of the data it helps to manage. O’Reilly Media
It’s been 16 years since the first Web2.0 conference, and in that time the volume, variety and velocity of information flow is increasing exponentially as more devices come on-line and more data is generated. According to Statista, data generated in 2020 is estimated to reach 50.5 zetabytes (1 billion terabytes), up from just 2 terabytes in 2010.
Going forward, the pace of data generation is in line for yet another boost thanks to growth in enabling technologies such as connected IoT (Internet of Things) devices, 5G networks and database management systems.
At the same time, it is no secret that the lion’s share of data falls under the control of Big Tech corporations, at the expense of the data rights of ordinary citizens.
Once upon a time the web was a free-flowing information highway. Today, however, the internet consists of a collection of large corporations monopolizing our data and our attention. Their business models depend on collecting our search queries, post engagements, and application downloads which they store on their servers and sell to the highest bidder in automated ad auctions.
Thankfully, the tide is beginning to turn as stakeholders from across government, business and NGOs are realizing that our ownership rights must be extended to our virtual identities and the information we generate online.
Data is the New Frontier of Property Rights
Property rights first emerged during the Enlightenment period of the 17th century. John Locke, a notable thinker at the time, was first to articulate these as an integral component of a well-functioning society. In his definition of property, Locke included both physical objects and immaterial assets such as the fruits of one’s labor.
A century later, Locke’s philosophy would inspire Thomas Jefferson while he drafted the Declaration of Independence. Motivated by his hero, Jefferson set out ‘Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness’ as ‘inalienable rights’ given to every citizen of the USA. This phrase was a slight variation of the original version, which had ‘Property’ in place of ‘the Pursuit of happiness.’
“Everyone has the right to own property alone as well as in association with others. No one shall be arbitrarily deprived of his property.” In just its third General Assembly gathering in 1948, the United Nations would enshrine an individual’s property rights with these very words. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights gives everyone the right to own, use and profit from their personal property, as long as it is harmless and legal. This applies not only to real estate and physical objects but to intangible assets as well.
Intellectual property laws are viewed as essential to fostering innovation and economic growth by extending one’s rights to inventive ideas and creative designs. For example, a Chinese Internet court is using blockchain technology to enforce intellectual property and protect online writers from piracy. However, protecting digital IP is not sufficient on its own.
Regulators are evolving legislation to give individuals more control over their information. GDPR, the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation, is the most comprehensive case in point. It grants a series of 8 data rights to every EU citizen, including the right to access their personal data and the right to download their data in an appropriate format for the sake of migrating to a different platform. The sweeping regulation applies to any company collecting data about EU citizens, whether they are based in the EU or not.
Meanwhile, in the US, both Andrew Yang and Elizabeth Warren carried the mantle of data rights during the Democratic primaries. Yang generated a sizable online following by confronting automation and its negative consequences. His proposal goes one step further than GDPR by calling for data to be recognized as a property right. Since leaving the presidential race, Yang has focused on the Data Dividend project as a vehicle to achieve these goals.
While Yang wants Big Tech to pay us for our data, Elizabeth Warren wants to break them up. In a Medium article from last year, she outlined a proposal for breaking up Big Tech and restoring competition to the industry.
However, legislation can only do so much. As anyone who has ever seen a Senate hearing knows, legislators aren’t exactly quick on the uptake when it comes to technology. Waiting for these legislators to catch up to the latest tech is highly inefficient. Instead, the platforms we interact with need built-in mechanisms that preserve the data rights of individuals.
Own Your Data On A Decentralized Web
As long as data is collected, stored and controlled by corporations, individuals will never truly own their data.
Decentralization can distribute data ownership away from large tech companies and towards individuals. An internet of decentralized applications (dApps) will enable users to own their data and choose who to share it with — as well as how and when to monetize it.
These applications are built on a blockchain, which also goes by the alternative name of ‘distributed ledger technology’ or ‘DLT’.
A ledger is a way we keep records, and we can use it to track anything. Currency account balances, user profiles on a software platform and social media posts can all be tracked on a ledger. And he (or she) who controls the ledger has the power. Take Facebook for example. You and I, as ordinary users of the platform, have no way to access Facebook’s ledger of users, posts and all the relevant metadata (likes, shares etc)
Under the hood, dApps replace the role of large corporations with a new model of consensus. With consensus, a distributed network of users can agree on and update the state of any ledger. Anyone can download, verify and take part in updating the ledger, which opens up a whole new world of user-friendly business models.
BAT, an open browser based on blockchain with over 8 million monthly users that rewards users in exchange for serving them ads, is one example of a data business model that is more aligned with the interest of the average user.
Recognizing the winds of change and wary of new technologies disrupting their business models, large tech companies are choosing to embrace decentralization. For example, a tweetstorm from Twitter CEO, Jack Dorsey, highlighted his plans to move in the direction of an open, decentralized social media standard — of which Twitter could eventually become a client. The Libra project, spearheaded by Facebook, is similarly being designed in such a way as to enable the platform to house general-purpose decentralized applications.
Advantages of Decentralized Data
In the context of the mass expansion of data, decentralization offers a number of advantages, such as:
- Share Information Between Partner Organizations With Ease: Central to blockchain’s value proposition is the idea of trustless collaboration, the ability for businesses to exchange information and work together without having to establish a formal business relationship first. Thanks to the blockchain, businesses and individuals can extend their networks far beyond their immediate domain and collaborate with partners from across the globe, without giving up any sensitive information.
- Train AI Models Collaboratively: An interoperable, decentralized network of nodes can work in concert to train prediction models in a collaborative effort known as federated learning. Each node can be given a chunk of the training data to work on, and together the network can compound their collective intelligence and processing capabilities to generate superior performance on AI training.
- Democratizing AI-Generated Wealth & Influence: Only by decentralizing the web can data ownership, as well as the wealth and influence it generates, be distributed away from the hands of large tech companies and given to individuals.
Towards Data Independence
Tim Berners-Lee, a British scientist working out of CERN, deliberately open-sourced the code for the World Wide Web in order to maximize collaboration and sharing on the internet. Since then, large corporations have come to dominate the flow of traffic online, thus becoming gatekeepers of precious data at the expense of the average user. Thankfully, the pendulum is starting to swing in the direction of a web with equal rights, access, and privacy for all, as both governments and corporations are realizing that we should control our own data. Personally, I am proud to work in an industry and at a company that is enabling individuals to regain control of their rights to their data and become empowered citizens within digital communities.