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You should own your data

Updated: at 03:22 PM

You should own your data

We all know tech companies are collecting and (ab)using our data. Many thoughtful articles and books have been written, insightful documentaries have been filmed, thorough investigations have taken place, and massive lawsuits have been filed about this data collection. But none of these solve the actual problem: we do not have real and effective control of the data collected about us.

We need to fundamentally change the relationship between social media platforms and our data. To do that, we need legislation that blocks social media platforms from storing our data. It is critical to consider that this legislation would not ban platforms from using our data; it only prohibits them from storing our data on their systems. Our data will still be there, but it gets stored in our own individual, private, and secure data locker. Platforms can request data from our data locker to offer us services and can also store data about us in our data locker. However, they can not store data about us on their systems.

To specify exactly what data a platform is permitted to read from and write to your data locker, the platform presents you with a data contract. You can decide to accept that data contract by joining the service. When a platform wants to fetch data from or store data in your data locker, your data locker evaluates these requests against that data contract and permits or rejects the request accordingly.

With your data in your own data locker, you are in complete control of it. The power dynamics between the tech companies and you have fundamentally shifted. Leveraging the data contract, you can see precisely the data the platform stores in your data locker. You can decide how long you want to store that data. You can choose to delete some or all of that data. You can also decide that the platform should no longer have access to your data by revoking your acceptance of the data contract.

In addition to improved privacy, there are two additional advantages to the data locker and the data contract. The excellent documentary The Social Dilemma describes how social media services use algorithms to maximize your engagement with their platform. The more you engage with their platform, the more time you spend on their platform, allowing the platform to show you more ads and thus increase their profits. These platforms know that certain content maximizes engagement better than others. They chose to show you this content, even if this content harms your mental health. A great example of this is content that enrages you, such as content from groups whose political ideas you disagree with or misinformation about the Covid pandemic. With your data in your own data locker and the data of your family, your friends or, your colleagues in their own data lockers, you can select the algorithms you want to run in your data locker to generate your content feed. Algorithms can describe their goals and methods for selecting content. You can try out these algorithms to see which of them provides you with content in your feed that you like best.

Finally, social media platforms benefit from the network effect. The more people that use their platform, the larger the advantage is for other people to use the same platform as it allows them to connect with more people they can interact with. This network effect causes a small number of social media platforms to dominate the market and makes it difficult for new social media services to compete with existing platforms. It is not easy to switch between social media platforms that offer similar features because your family, friends, or colleagues are all on the existing platform and not on the alternative platform. This market dominance of established platforms prevents innovation. It empowers the dominant social media platforms to prioritize their profits over your mental health and even over the social fabric of whole countries.

The data contract between a social media platform and you specifies the data that a platform can store and retrieve from your data locker. In addition, the data contract additionally specifies the data the platform can read from your memberships of other platforms. New social media platforms can use this capability to allow people to quickly recreate their network and provides the new platforms a set of data they can use from the start, making them more attractive to people.

In summary, the proposed legislation introduces the data locker and the data contract to provide three benefits:

However, there is a slight issue: The data locker supporting the data contract does not exist yet. But the open-source development community can create this kind of technology. Projects like the Solid Project and NextCloud could be starting points, and I have begun the BYODA (Bring Your Own Data and Algorithms) project.