A Brief Timeline of Data Ownership

History: What happened?

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The birth of the Internet and later the World Wide Web connected us all and democratized information. The idea that we can have most if not all knowledge known to humankind at our fingertips that can be accessed at any time is not only marvelous but magical. And indeed, it gave us a superpower. The pace of technological evolution accelerated like never before. It turned out that universal access to knowledge was a good thing and perhaps inevitable, it empowered people to express their creativity and build on the shoulders of giants much more efficiently and accurately.

The World Wide Web began with something called Web 1.0, from around mid-1990s to early-2000s. It was a read-only web, people were mostly limited to the retrieval of information online and not expected to contribute to the digitization of things from the real world. It was revolutionary, but also just the beginning. From mid-2000s until now has been Web 2.0, where we live in a world of read-write web. Besides browsing digital content, people were able to create content themselves and share it with others on platforms like Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, and many more. A large number of servers and databases were installed and maintained in order to capture and keep those data. All these data combined, in essence, is the fuel of those Machine Learning models that could predict human behavior like never before. Personalization, targeted ads, even surveillance were implemented with surprising and scary precision. Massive wealth was created but most was concentrated to a few people on the very top.

The Internet democratized information, and perhaps it’s time to democratize the value created by data, which in turn is created by the people.

Present: What does it mean to own your data?

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It was silently assumed by those internet platform companies that they own their users’ data, and was made possible with those terms and conditions that most sane people don’t read. Actually, it was quite clever, driven by a brilliant yet, as we later found out, a dangerous business model, and it roughly works like this: users sign themselves up to the platforms as products to sell to advertisers. The tricky part is though, users didn’t know that they were the products and not the customers when they signed up. It was brilliant because it was initially an alignment of value between all the parties involved. Users didn’t have to pay anything to enjoy the services of the platform, advertisers get their targeted audience with feedback, and the platform itself gets paid by the advertisers for how well they can deliver the “right” message to the corresponding group of users. Where it went sideways was when these platforms started to go out of bounds with respect to user privacy, we’ve seen in many cases where people’s personal information was sold to people with malicious intent, either to further divide groups of people or to spread fake news to the persuadable. In addition, these internet platforms’ inability to distinguish between hate speech and freedom of speech only made things worse, after all, it doesn’t matter what the message is, as long as someone pays for it, the platforms will amplify it.

All these mean that data ownership is now more important than ever, people are starting to realize the impact of allowing companies to do whatever they want with their data and that their data are literally being weaponized against them. But what does it really mean for a user to own their data?

To take it to the extreme, in the case where by owning we mean having control of the physical storage of the data. Users set up their own servers in their house and check each incoming access to their data and decide accordingly. To be realistic, it’s unlikely that people would put servers in their house and host data themselves. More likely, the data would be stored on the cloud, which basically means storing it on someone else’s computer somewhere in the world. But who pays for the storage fee?

To own your data is to have the ability to control where the data is, know how it is being used, and receive some value whenever someone accesses your data. Control of the location of the data includes the freedom to delete the data permanently and to have the final say in who has access to your data. Knowing how your data is being used means the parties you granted access to your data are all being transparent and honest about in what way they are using your data. Receiving value is simply getting the profit that your data generated, minus the storage fee from the storage provider and transaction fee from the platform provider.

But all this is assuming a couple of things. First, that these internet platform companies would turn away from their current business model which is making them some of the richest companies in history, and start sharing their wealth with the users. Second, that your data cannot be copied, which is obviously not true, an image you posted somewhere can easily be copied and used without your consent. There’s nothing stopping someone from buying your data once and then resell it somewhere else. This is where regulation comes in to make such activity illegal. In the case where you feel uncomfortable with the fact that it relies heavily on good-faith and trusting people won’t resell your data to begin with, and that regulators would have to step in to resolve any conflicts, there’s a potential solution for a better future and a promising one, a technology called Blockchain and a movement called Web 3.0.

Future: What do we do?

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Web 3.0 is a movement around decentralization and transparency, an unmediated read-write web, where most value goes directly to the users and not some intermediaries. This movement is empowered, among others, by Blockchain, the technology behind Bitcoin, a pseudonymous digital cryptocurrency that the owner has complete control, some called Bitcoin the Digital Gold or the Central Bank of the Internet. What’s unique about blockchain applications is that the ultimate control of data, whether it’s digital money or asset, is given by what’s called a private key, a string of random characters, whoever has access to this private key has complete and absolute authority over what to do with its corresponding data on the blockchain. This brings the dream of letting users have control of their data to reality as long as they keep their private keys safe.

There’re many amazing people building such technology. Ethereum, a public open-source blockchain platform featuring smart contracts, programs that are automatically executed on the blockchain, is perhaps currently the one with the most community support. Flow, another public open-source blockchain developed by Dapper Labs, the same team that built the famous decentralized application CryptoKitties, a digital collectible game that allows players to purchase, collect, breed, and sell virtual cats. Flow also has a focus on NFTs (Non-Fungible Tokens), which can be thought of as digital tokens with each being a unique personal asset. What this enables is the complete ownership of digital assets on a secure platform for the users.

The best that we can do right now is to realize the danger of continuing down the path we’re on and being vocal about topics such as data privacy and ownership. For builders, build applications that are user-centered, empower people to be more productive and live a better life rather than constantly distract them and maximize the time spent on your app.

This is definitely not to say that every problem in our society will all of a sudden disappear with Blockchain or the Web 3 movement. Most problems are not meant to be solved by technology itself but with people using those technologies. We as a society need to rethink who’s capturing most of the value and hold them accountable, and a good start would be changing the business models of these companies to something that aligns with the goals of the users. Lots of problems are ahead of us, climate change, education, wealth inequality, and so many more, fixing what’s broken right now allows us to create a foundation of a better future for the next generation, and it’s up to us to make sure that the best version of the future is ours and not somewhere in a parallel universe.