Releasing his creation for free 30 years ago, the inventor of the world wide web, Tim Berners-Lee, famously declared: “this is for everyone”. Today, his invention is used by billions – but it also hosts the authoritarian crackdowns of antidemocratic governments, and supports the infrastructure of the most wealthy and powerful companies on Earth.
Now, in an effort to return the internet to the golden age that existed before its current incarnation as Web 2.0 – characterised by invasive data harvesting by governments and corporations – Berners-Lee has devised a plan to save his invention.
This involves his brand of “data sovereignty” – which means giving users power over their data – and it means wrestling back control of the personal information we surrendered to big tech many years ago.
Berners-Lee’s latest intervention comes as increasing numbers of people regard the online world as a landscape dominated by a few tech giants, thriving on a system of “surveillance capitalism” – which sees our personal data extracted and harvested by online giants before being used to target advertisements at us as we browse the web.
Courts in the US and the EU have filed cases against big tech as part of what’s been dubbed the “techlash” against their growing power. But Berners-Lee’s answer to big tech’s overreach is far simpler: to give individuals the power to control their own data.
The idea of data sovereignty has its roots in the claims of the world’s indigenous people, who have leveraged the concept to protect the intellectual property of their cultural heritage.
Applied to all web users, data sovereignty means giving individuals complete authority over their personal data. This includes the self-determination of which elements of our personal data we permit to be collected, and how we allow it to be analysed, stored, owned and used.
This would be in stark contrast to the current data practices that underpin big tech’s business models. The practice of “data extraction”, for instance, refers to personal information that is taken from people surfing the web without their meaningful consent or fair compensation. This depends on a model in which your data is not regarded as being your property.
Scholars argue that data extraction, combined with “network effects”, has led to teach monopolies. Network effects are seen when a platform becomes dominant, encouraging even more users join and use it. This allows the dominant platform more possibilities to extract data, which they use to produce better services. In turn, these better services attract even more users. This tends to amplify the power (and database size) of dominant firms at the expense of smaller ones.
This monopolisation tendency explains why the data extraction and ownership landscape is dominated by the so-called GAFAM – Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon and Microsoft – in the US and the so-called BAT – Baidu, Alibaba and Tencent – in China. In addition to companies, governments also have monopoly power over their citizens’ data.
“Data sovereignty” has been proposed as a promising means of reversing this monopolising tendency. It’s an idea that’s been kicked about on the fringes of internet debates for some time, but its backing by Tim Berners-Lee will mean it garners much greater attention.
Building data vaults
Berners-Lee isn’t just backing data sovereignty: he’s building the tech to support it. He recently set up Inrupt, a company with the express goal of moving towards the kind of world wide web that its inventor had originally envisioned. Inrupt plans to do that through a new system called “pods” – personal online data stores.
Pods work like personal data safes. By storing their data in a pod, individuals retain ownership and control of their own data, rather than transferring this to digital platforms. Under this system, companies can request access to an individual’s pod, offering certain services in return – but they cannot extract or sell that data onwards.
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Inrupt has built these pods as part of its Solid project, which has followed the form of a Silicon Valley startup – though with the express objective of making pods accessible for all. All websites or apps a user with a pod visits will require authentication by Solid before being allowed to request an individual’s personal data. If pods are like safes, Solid acts like the bank in which the safe is stored.
One of the criticisms of the idea of pods is that it approaches data as a commodity. The concept of “data markets” has been mooted, for instance, as a system that enables companies to make micro-payments in exchange for our data. The fundamental flaw of such a system is that data is of little value when it is bought and sold on its own: the value of data only emerges from its aggregation and analysis, accrued via network effects.
An alternative to the commodification of data could lie in categorising data as “commons”. The idea of the commons was first popularised by the work of Nobel Prize-winning political economist Elinor Ostrom.
A commons approach to data would regard it as owned not by individuals or by companies, but as something that’s owned by society. Data as commons is an emerging idea which could unlock the value of data as a public good, keeping ownership in the hands of the community.
Tim Berners-Lee’s intervention in debates about the destiny of the internet is a welcome development. Governments and communities are coming to realise that big tech’s data-driven digital dominance is unhealthy for society. Pods represent one answer among many to the question of how we should respond.
Pieter Verdegem does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.