The World Wide Web was originally envisaged as an open platform on which everyone could contribute content so that it could be freely accessed by everyone else. It was built on the decentralized architecture of the internet, used open standards and functioned as an accessible platform that would inherit and amplify the fundamentally decentralized nature of the network that underpinned it.
However, the reality today has fallen short of its founding vision. The modern internet is centralized and siloed. Its most important real estate is controlled by a few powerful data corporations that funnel content to users through platforms designed to selectively serve up information using carefully curated newsfeeds and recommendations. These are algorithmically designed to respond to the individual likes and dislikes. Its decisions are based on profiles built by analyzing patterns of behaviour and unethically harvested personal information.
As a result, the modern internet is far from open. The content it stores is no longer freely accessible by its users—most of whom are utterly unaware of the limited agency they have in accessing it.
Tim Berners-Lee, the founding father of the internet, has, for some time now, been troubled with this state of affairs. He believes the internet that he invented “has evolved into an engine of inequity and division; swayed by powerful forces who use it for their own agenda".
Over the past few years, he has been working on a project that he hopes will change things so that power and agency can be restored back to the users of the internet.
This new platform, called Solid, has been designed to ensure that users will be able to store their personal information—photos, documents, notes, entries and personal data points—on personal data stores (PDS) that, at all times, remains under their exclusive control. Applications such as calendar and journal apps and web services such as social media platforms, can, at the option of the user, be granted granular access to some or all of the information stored on this PDS with limited permission to interact with some of this data for clearly specified uses.
As a result, users can use these services but the applications themselves will not be able store or permanently host their personal data.
If this actually does work well, it could reverse the current state of affairs. However, this is much easier said than done.
The primary reason we gravitate to social media platforms is not that they host our personal data for free but because they serve as a virtual meeting place where we can interact with all the important people in our lives. If Solid is going to wean us away from the many social media sites that we currently populate, it is going to need to find a way to replicate that environment. It will then have to convince not just us but all our friends, family members and co-workers to also move.
Unless the social experience of interacting on its platform is significantly better, or at the very least not materially different from what we experience today, it is unlikely to be successful—no matter how much safer it might actually be for our personal privacy.
Even if we can achieve this, I have some misgivings about whether creating a central repository for personal data is the right way to go. Having a single data store, no matter how securely designed, presents a single surface for attack that, if penetrated, will offer any hacker easy access to all of our personal information in a single place.
Instead, I believe we would do far better if we could develop universally accepted standards for electronic consent. These would not only govern the manner in which data controllers use the data they collect from us, but would also require them to mandatorily interconnect their databases with those of other service providers using commonly understood data interchange formats.
This will, in the first place, give us far greater control over the manner in which our personal data is being used by data businesses, allowing us to tweak our own experience of their services to arrive at that specific trade-off between convenience and data protection that best suits our individual requirements. But more importantly, it will allow us to continue to federate data storage across these multiple services while still delivering the benefits that come from cross-platform data exchange.
I believe that this will eventually lead to true social graph portability where trust accrued on one platform can be accurately leveraged across the entire digital ecosystem. Once implemented at scale, we will finally be able to leverage the positive feedback we have received on AirBnB to, for instance, avail a special offer when we book a ride on Uber. Or to use the likes we received for a photograph we posted on Instagram to improve our ranking on 500px.
Far more significant than all these obvious outcomes, however, is the fact that once we have achieved full portability of the social graph, the algorithms that power the various popular social media platforms of the world will become less mysterious. We will, as a result be able to better understand how these platforms work, allowing us to more accurately appreciate the consequences that might arise from our use of them. It is possible that this will make it easier to game these systems, but that might be a price worth paying if it offers an effective check on the inadvertent harm it can cause.
Rahul Matthan is a partner at Trilegal and author of Privacy 3.0: Unlocking Our Data Driven Future. Ex Machina is a column on technology, law and everything in between. His Twitter handle is @matthan.