Welcome back to the World Wide Web! I’m sure you’re familiar with the way it works around here, you have to visit because of the dependance of our society on it’s services but we will take your data and use it against you — thanks, enjoy your stay!
30 years ago Tim Berners-Lee launched the World Wide Web for free saying “this is for everyone”. It was and still is revolutionary. However, as with many innocent innovations, it’s been misused. Today we work on what is known as Web 2.0 — characterised by invasive data harvesting and monopolised by a small handful of tech giants. Data harvesting has become the digital gold-rush. Companies and governments have raced to analyse every piece of data that streams through the internet. Every time us users go onto the web we leave a breadcrumb trail of ourselves, a data footprint. By collecting that footprint these enterprises are able to create a digital mirror of ourselves. Just like archeologists studying the footprints of our ancestors and piecing together their behaviour. They can learn how to distract, what makes us react, what gets us to tick and what makes us click. I could go on forever about what they use that data for and how it manipulates us, but let’s talk about the future instead.
So how do we stop them?
There are a few ideas and some change is happening. Regulations such as GDPR are helping but there is a simpler way — according to the original innovator of the web, Tim Berners-Lee himself.
Data sovereignty. It’s a simple concept — we have control over our own data. The difference here is that it is full control, unlike the illusion of control that many companies currently offer. When you visit a web page and the company requests your data, with data sovereignty all they can do is view it as you browse to allow their services to function for you. At the moment when they take you data they can store it, sell it, and view the data from other sites. Our data is traded about as soon as we give it to one company. How we go about removing the data companies already have is another question — one that I do not know the answer to personally, though I imagine it can be achieved by legislation.
Two years ago Berners-Lee established Inrupt, a startup company aiming to develop the technology which could deliver his “vision for a vibrant web of shared benefit and opportunity”. In November last year, Inrupt hit it’s largest milestone when they launched their first Enterprise-ready Solid Server. The Solid server is a new technology they’ve developed that allows users to store their data in Solid PODS — Personal Online Data Stores. In essence, they store all of your personal data securely giving you complete control other what can access it. They’re like a safe for your data and Solid is like the bank which stores the safes. So when you visit a website that requires data, you can authorise it to access certain data, but all it can do is view it. It’s a complex issue, which is half the issue with this to begin with, most people just don’t and won’t understand its workings. Which is why we need to be able to trust our data is secure, because at the moment it’s not.
This method does have its critics and questions. Some suggest that this will just turn data into a commodity where big tech will simply pay tiny fees for access to user data so that they can continue to run their algorithms. However, the value of data doesn’t come from the individual pieces but the patterns across it all, so these companies may not be able to get enough through this method to make it worthwhile. There is still a way to go with this idea of data sovereignty and there is potential for it to grow into a form of data economy.
Talk of our data privacy is becoming ever more present amongst the general populous. Whether this technology enabling a kind of data sovereignty is the answer we’re looking for it’s hard to know. When Tim Berners-Lee is developing it though, it’s certainly worth taking seriously. The World Wide Web was his innovation and its been exploited in ways he never intended. He’s attempting to do something about that and invoke the next big internet revolution.
If you’d like to hear more discussion on the topic of data privacy check out our podcast episode where Pablo and I discuss more about the topic as well as the Cambridge Analytica scandal here!