Privacy is the red herring that Big Tech wants us to talk about. This is why the term has taken on such a prominent role in advertising campaigns recently. Corporations put the responsibility for achieving privacy in our hands, whereas privacy would not even be a problem if they were not storing our data in the first place. We must shift the conversation from privacy to the underlying issue, namely consumers' inability to control their own data.
We do not have a “privacy problem.” We have a lack of innovation and market competition. Our loss of privacy is a mere consequence of fundamentally flawed Silicon Valley business models, collateral damage.
Most of our communication and news consumption is confined to the boundaries of a handful of social networks. As a result, billions of people have become dependent on these corporate giants to access and exchange information. This hyper-concentration of data, and consequently, power, has led to a monopolistic market where profits are put ahead of the responsibility to protect consumers' privacy. Among the solutions, one is fundamental: decentralize the web.
Decentralization means guaranteeing that no central authority controls a user’s data. When Tim Berners-Lee created the web, he gave it an open architecture to promote free speech and permissionless innovation. Data was stored on users’ hard disks and computers connected to one another. But in recent years, our data is no longer residing just on our own devices. Instead, most of it is held in the silos of the world’s leading tech companies.
All major social networks operate under a business model that seizes full control over users’ data. They make it impossible to communicate from one platform to another or transfer contacts, conversations, and photos. Consequently, dissatisfied users are left with one choice: to remain on the platform or to restart their digital lives all over again while possibly becoming shut off from a significant part of their contacts. Consumers should not have to face such a drastic trade-off. Why aren’t legislators paying attention to this crucial flaw in the digital economy?
If we want to leverage the web’s full potential, we need to level the playing field. Without healthy competition, the tech companies that currently dominate the market do not feel the pressure to change their products. Meanwhile, innovative and ethical alternatives have trouble entering the marketplace.
When we ensure sustainable innovation, consumers will gain the choices they have been missing for years. Researchers around the globe are designing solutions to give users control over their data. With the aim of re-decentralizing his invention, Berners-Lee kickstarted an ecosystem built on top of the web called Solid. Within this ecosystem, we are developing data pods that function as hard disks for information users generate on the web, ranging from banking details to photos, contacts, and messages. These pods will be made freely available and allow users to safely store all their data, resulting in true data ownership as well as improved privacy. Anyone will be able to decide exactly which people and apps can access what parts of their data. This will give consumers control over the amount of information social networks and other corporations can access and collect.
These data pods will also allow consumers to create data in one app and seamlessly continue in another. They will enable people to interact with friends more easily. Instead of using different messaging apps to contact different people, users will be able to pick the app that works best for them and directly interact with their contacts’ pods, even when everyone is using different apps.
When enough people adopt this technology, start-ups will be freed from the high costs of having to store user data and the increasingly complex legal challenges that come with it. Instead, I expect to see a diversification of markets: one for apps and one for data storage. Each market will come with its own competitive forces that stimulate creativity and innovation at much higher rates.
Contrary to what some may believe, the services offered by today’s large social networks and other tech companies are not that difficult to replicate or improve. These networks are merely engaging because they hold the data to interact with our families, friends, and communities. Restoring competition will allow innovators to enter the market with better services, such as improved privacy safeguards, algorithms that prevent filter bubbles, or a zero-tolerance policy on false political advertising. The same is true for all other industries that harvest our personal information.
But data control should not be optional or rely on technological innovations. As it is unlikely that companies will give up their data silos, it must be the responsibility of legislators to cement the individual’s control of their data into law. Unfortunately, Washington is stuck with a 20th-century antitrust framework that focuses almost exclusively on anticompetitive mergers and acquisitions, such as Facebook’s takeover of Instagram and Whatsapp. While it is certainly true that buying out potential competitors erodes an industry’s competitiveness, breaking up tech conglomerates should go hand in hand with ensuring consumer choice. To make the market fair, we need a paradigm shift. Do we want a web that is open, free, and therefore decentralized? Or are we going to keep the future of our digital lives in the hands of a few data-hungry companies?