Data Ownership And The Solid Revolution

“Vague but exciting”: these three words were used by Mike Sendall, senior scientist at the CERN laboratories in Geneva, to comment on the draft of an internal project that would revolutionise, in only a few years, the way communications happened across the globe. 

It was the year 1989 and Tim Berners-Lee, one of the researchers, supervised by Dr Sendall, was proposing a prototype of what is now the World Wide Web (W3). At the time, the distributed hypertext system was introduced to automatically exchange documents and information about the experiments and the particle accelerators within the CERN complex.

Two years later, on the 6th of August 1991, the first website was online, which merely described to visitors that were connected to Berners-Lee computer (which was hosting the first web server) what the W3 project was about.

Rapidly, scientists around the world started using the W3 as a means to exchange data across universities, until in 1993 the CERN laboratories decided to release the hypertext software code to the public domain. Within a year, 10 million people were using the web, and commercial servers and websites started to appear.

Today, another 25 years later, the web reaches more than half of the population of the Earth. As you read this, 40 million GB of data will be shared by the end of the day. Social networking sites account for much of this data traffic: almost one in three people on the Planet has an account on Facebook – a network with over 150 billion connections.

Data ownership issues

Across these connections, personal and sensitive information is shared in a continuous stream under the careful watch of those who are in control of the virtual platforms that allow this process to take place.

The content we look at, the music we listen to, the comments we leave, the photos we share, are recorded and stored in big data centres. In this way, we are effectively relinquishing ownership of our personal data to private companies who end up owning our digital identities.

The businesses that understand the gold mine they sit on, use personal data to make enormous profits. Not surprisingly then, we are consistently targeted by tailored adverts that know our tastes, our gender, our sexual orientation.

Sensitive data are not just used to make money but can also be serving political agendas, as we recently found out with the Facebook/Cambridge Analytica situation.

But it’s not all bad news. Tim Berners-Lee says, the WWW is the incubator of innovation, the place where people collaborate, share and communicate. This is how the web was conceived in the first place: as “a tool for humanity”. Thanks to it, the very way in which knowledge is acquired and shared has changed.

Today, knowledge has a more fluid meaning: people have access to the information they need quickly, permitting them to be more creative and focus less on memorising. Distances have shrunk, and people can seamlessly communicate between each other, wherever they are in the world.

However, Tim Berners-Lee recently echoed on his blog on Medium, the warning that all this freedom is at risk. He urged web users to take back ownership of their data and to be in charge of their identities, and he shared his plans of software that might help steer the W3 back on track.

Privacy issues

In the last couple of years, the European Union has made a significant effort to contain the abuse of web users’ sensitive information by introducing strict new regulations, GDPR (General Data Protection Regulations) to which all companies operating in the EU or dealing with data of EU citizens have to abide.

Amongst others, GDPR requires that companies obtain the personal information lawfully, usually from an agreement with the person, and that they keep it safe and up-to-date.

Data can be a liability when the right permit to handle it is not acquired. Businesses are liable to penalties up to €20 million or, for enterprises, up to 4% of their worldwide turnover, whichever is highest.

Nowadays, every company collects and stores huge volumes of data and it is very likely that, at some point, some sensitive information might end up in the wrong hands, exposing the company to these regulatory penalties.

This merely adds to the fact that, in general, data can have a high cost of maintenance and storage. For this reason, most businesses today are not yet managing their data well enough to obtain a competitive advantage by processing them.

Even the Big Data companies are not immune to these issues. In the last few hours, we have learned about Google’s plan to shut down its social network, Google+, which was once expected to be a potential rival for Facebook.

This sudden decision is seemingly the consequence of a data leakage. According to the Wall Street Journal, Google allegedly failed to report a breach of 500,000 users’ information because it feared a regulatory inquiry.

The GDPR prescribes that an organisation must report a breach to the authorities within 72 hours – it will be interesting to see how the European authorities deal with this. The market has already reacted to the news: both Google and Alphabet Inc. (Google’s parent company) have seen their share prices drop.

Data ownership, security, and privacy are serious matters and when the volumes of data acquired become overwhelming, errors happen which are paid for at a heavy price.

Those are only a couple of examples about how data ownership issues disrupt businesses at all levels of data maturity. We believe that other cases, like Cambridge Analytica and Google+ will emerge over time: these are only the first symptoms of current data structures’ fragility. 

Going forward in the Big Data Era, a thorough revision of the Web architecture will become inevitable. Achieving this is probably one of the hardest challenges of our time.

The Solid revolution: decentralising the web

Solid tries to disentangle the Web from these privacy issues. So, let’s try and understand what this visionary platform is about. Solid was devised by a team of researchers at MIT labs, led by Tim Berners-Lee.

Its architecture is based on the well-known W3 Consortium standards and protocols to make the platform quickly accessible to the most technical users. Moreover, it is completely open source – meaning that its code is open and available to everyone, from software developers to the final users, and it is for them to read it, shape it, improve it.

As expected, this is perfectly aligned with the vision of the web as a sharing community. Solid has one key mission: changing the way web applications work with users’ data for the benefit of people’s privacy.

In the Solid philosophy, your personal data should not be owned by anyone, but you. Your digital information makes up your Digital Identity, which is securely stored into Solid’s PODs.

A POD is like a personal safe within the Cloud which contains all sorts of personal information: photos, contacts, calendar events, even the progress you are making at the gym! It can be accessed anywhere and its contents can be shared with other people.

Similar to most online social networks, friends can still react or comment on your content, if you grant them permission to your POD. It will also be possible for other authorised people to write or modify your data, making the web a more interactive and collaborative world.

Then comes integration: applications working on the Solid platform can access the information they need by sending a query to the user; if the access is granted, the data can then be read, without being physically transferred and while remaining written exclusively in the POD. If, later on, the person decides to revoke the permission to read the data, the app can no longer access it.

Decentralised data ownership is then at the centre of Solid philosophy. This is not quite as restrictive as it looks. On the contrary, a galaxy of services, businesses, applications could, in principle, flourish driven by an enhanced trust.

Apps will be interacting with each other in a fertile collaboration to pursue users’ personal empowerment and to fulfil business objectives through wise data use. Moreover, decentralising the Web would be a relief for the headaches that data protection rules cause, as data would never leave the user POD.

With Solid, trust will eventually be at the centre of the relationship between consumers and web businesses. At Anmut, we believe that this would represent a big step forward towards data maturity, as businesses that are able to build a trustful relationship with their stakeholders are going to be massively rewarded by the market.

Clearly, data-savvy organisations should keep an eye on the evolution of this platform if they want to take advantage!

Check out our guide on Data Maturity, if you missed it.

At Anmut, we help organisations understand the value of data and its strategic significance. Contact us, if you are interested in learning more about what we do.