Your data is “for sale” – And this is how you get it back
Our presence on the internet is in the form of data. Everything is just data. But who owns this data? How is this data stored? What happens to our data when we agree to “share” it? In this article, Rong Chen discusses the nature of decentralized web and how we can create it.
The internet is at the very beginning of a much needed, and much overdue, public reproach. Terms like “data breach,” “data ownership,” and “data economy,” are finally emerging into the public consciousness after decades of submerged damage. What is coming to light is that the very mechanism upon which our data travels, upon which it is stored — the so-called infrastructure of our current internet — is not a superhighway at all, but a tumultuous and failing web of centrally controlled connections. Our internet is literally dangerous, vulnerable, and owned by the mere few who have seized power by understanding its enigmatic mechanics, monetizing it to unprecedented levels in world economic history.
Those who have benefitted the greatest from this deeply flawed global ubiquity are merely opportunists in what will later be seen as the first phase of a very long arc that has and will continue to change our world drastically. While blaming the internet monopolies of today is finally becoming a public conversation piece, this conversation, even if it produces the appropriate checks and balances on their power, is not the real solution. The time for upgrades and fixes is over. We must build a new internet infrastructure. We must start the internet over and usher in its second phase. We must begin to educate the world on what is coming: the decentralized web, and its catalyst, blockchain technology.
Our presence on the internet is in the form of data. Everything is just data. But who owns this data? How is this data stored? What happens to our data when we agree to “share” it? In the last few years, stories of data breaches resulting in the stolen data of tens and sometimes hundreds of millions of people have frighteningly become commonplace, hitting huge companies like Equifax, Target, and most recently Facebook. Stories about how the “free services” that the tech giants provide us with are exposing that the internet is something people have blindly taken for granted and actually comes at a very high price. The public has very little idea how the internet works, and this has led to a corporate and centrally controlled public service that was originally designed to be free and decentralized. When we use services like Google and Facebook, or for that matter, the majority of websites and services online, we agree to hand over our data.
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This data is then sold to advertisers, or in the case of the 2016 US presidential election, Cambridge Analytica. But maybe even more critical than how our data is sold is how it is stored. Not only are we not paid for the sale of our data, but our data is left exposed to hackers on central servers that have proven unable to protect our most personal information. Even still, the outdated world wide web and central server infrastructure also leave our data easily manipulated by government control, as seen in countries across the world. On the current internet, our data is not ownable and our data is not safe. As we expand the internet with the coming IoT (Internet of Things) revolution, these issues could become some of the largest of the 21st century.
As this conversation amasses new proposed solutions from both governments and industry experts, none of these solutions are able to make real changes because all of them involve fixing the current internet. In the United States, multiple Congressional hearings have discussed the internet and data privacy with social media giants. What can be taken away from these discussions is that the internet is a highly technical topic and very few leaders understand even where to begin to enable solutions. A recent article in The Guardian detailed an overview of the movement to decentralize the web, yet the examples of companies and projects that were part of this movement only focused on fixing specific aspects of the current internet. None of the projects mentioned had a remedy for the internet as a whole. None of them were working on a large scale decentralized infrastructure what could solve all of the problems by building something completely new and detached from the current internet.
Our data is our wealth — a wealth we have never been told exists. The current centralized internet has an economic system where the real currency, data, is all handed over to central entities, almost like an enormous tax that we do not even know we are paying. This is not free market capitalism. This is complete control of the data economy by central actors. This is what needs to end, and this is what the decentralized web solves.
What is a truly decentralized web?
A truly decentralized web refers to having services with no intermediary whatsoever. These services may refer to websites, applications, media players, social platforms, and any online innovation that the internet can support. Current intermediaries for websites are centralized servers that store our data, while current intermediaries for applications are the ever-aging and vulnerable internet protocols. Everywhere one looks on the current internet, there are intermediaries lurking in every corner, and these are mostly controlled by a very select group of entities, companies, and corporations. To have a truly decentralized web means to completely remove all of these intermediaries. No more centralized servers to store our data, but instead, we must allow websites to be serverless, where data is distributed and completely owned and controlled by each user, without relying on anyone else.
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To facilitate this, there also needs to be a completely decentralized peer to peer network that takes care of all network traffic without relying on the ever-aging and vulnerable internet protocols, because that is where the majority of cyber attacks arise from. Finally, to truly describe the decentralized web, we need to broaden and redefine what a decentralized application, or dApp, is. A dApp, in its simplest definition, means that no third party can shut it off. This cannot be emphasized enough.
How can it help the current issues we are facing?
The largest issues we currently face are the hacking of our data, the sale of our data, and the theft of our account information. At the moment, no matter what rose-colored lenses one wears, users have zero control over their own data. The simple reason is that the current internet is massively vulnerable and under central control. These global and mammoth issues, when combined, leave users to willingly and unwillingly hand over their data to big companies so that they can provide protection on the internet.
However, this protection is not always guaranteed, as seen in allegations of account theft from tech giants like Facebook. The internet needs to be rebuilt, and in the process, create an environment for data to be secure while giving it back to the users who produce it. In order for this to happen, a decentralized web is necessary, and maybe, the entire internet infrastructure needs to be rewritten from scratch.
How can we create it?
The first step in creating a decentralized web is to fix the broken internet protocols that were developed over 40 years ago. The vulnerabilities of these protocols allow cyber attacks like a man in the middle and distributed denial of service attacks. These are the types of attacks that can, and have, shut down large portions of the internet and could even shut down large portions of a country’s physical infrastructure. For decades, the solution has been to “patch and pray,” instead of building a new infrastructure where these vulnerabilities would not be possible in the first place. Once these new protocols are established, the intermediaries need to be removed. As long as you give someone else control of your data, they will have the full authority and rights over it because they also control the infrastructure where your data is stored. With this control, a third party could censor you.
This kind of censorship can be eliminated by building a distributed storage system where there are no more centralized servers. Instead, your data is distributed and protected by code and only you have access to it. No one can access your data nor can they block you from accessing your data nor can they monetize your data. These are the first two building blocks to creating a truly decentralized web. Once that is mature, any kind of service that is available on the current internet can be built on this new infrastructure, therefore, we will no longer need to rely on the broken internet protocols of the past. We also need an immutable way to identify who owns what data, without the use of a central actor. We need a decentralized ID (DID) system for the entire internet.
A system where a blockchain gives out the decentralized ID and this DID verifies immutably who owns what, and prevents anyone without ownership to access this data. When combined with a new infrastructure, blockchain can provide trust for the entire internet. Finally, if we are going to decentralize how data is stored, we need an infrastructure that can act as a peer to peer logistics center. Each user will be able to have their own digital silo, or personal cloud computer, where they can store all of their encrypted data. By using the trusted ID system from the blockchain, the network can gather the data needed from a silo, place it in a “digital capsule,” and ship it out directly to its destination without an intermediary. When the data arrives at the next silo, the ID is verified and the package can be opened. All of this can happen autonomously with a decentralized infrastructure that uses blockchain correctly as a mechanism of trust and decentralization.
The internet is at the end of a cycle, and not only a new technology, but also a cultural movement involving decentralization, is ushering in the next phase. Both internet monopolies and regulators do not know how to heal the current internet and allow data ownership and privacy rights. This is not against Apple, and Amazon, and Microsoft. In fact, these companies are important and can be likened to chain grocery stores. There are some advantages to their centralized services, but users need the option to give true consent to participate in how these services operate and they need decentralized competition. There needs to be the farmer’s markets, as well as the huge corporate stores.
This competition is healthy for everyone. Our data has had a “for sale” sign on it for far too long, and only a truly decentralized entity can protect it and give it back to its rightful owners. The cyber attacks will continue, the theft of our data will continue, and the pockets of tech giants will get deeper. It is only when we invest in decentralized technologies that we will actually invest in ourselves and our own data. The decentralized movement is coming, not only to disrupt the internet but to design it properly from the ground up. This is the modern internet for the 21st century.