Users and their data: re-energizing innovation on the web

Punish the gatekeepers or think differently and give users their own data stores? There are multiple paths towards re-making the web as a more innovative place for all app developers.
13 September 2022

Innovation station: Personal online data stores (Pods) put data back in the hands of users. Image credit: Shutterstock.

When it comes to discussions on user data there are often two primary threads – first, is the threat to privacy. Our data – some personal, some behavioral – is everywhere and we don’t have much control over it. Then, secondly, there’s the question of reward. A handful of tech giants make an awful lot of money from our data and the majority of users have no share in that revenue. But there’s an important third angle that’s often drowned out as various sides debate the first two. And that’s re-energizing innovation on the web. Many are worried that allowing a handful of companies to hoard valuable user data is turning things stale and dimming the light of ideas that could otherwise shine much brighter.

Let’s start with some numbers. Meta’s TTM (trailing 12 months – a rolling calculation) gross profit currently stands at $96.1 billion on total revenue of $119.4 billion. By the same measure, Amazon is making $63 billion in gross profit on total revenue of $485.9 billion. And the balance sheets for Apple, Microsoft, and Google are somewhere in between. These are astoundingly large numbers, and go a long way to explain why some users feel that they are being short-changed for the use of their data on platforms such as Facebook, Instagram, and elsewhere. But the concerns go wider still, as mentioned, specifically on the erosion of competition in the market when user data becomes siloed.

The long road

The EU has long been chasing down the privacy road with legislation such as GDPR, which came into effect in May 2018. The regulations promote the rights of users to know what companies are doing with their data. And while GDPR has helped to surface the extent to which companies are sharing data with their partners – it doesn’t fix the gatekeeping problem. But the EU has more up its sleeve, which includes the Digital Services Act and the Digital Markets Act – a double dose of legislation that reached a political agreement earlier this year. The combined package aims to strengthen the rights of internet users to a safer online experience, and ‘to establish a level playing field to foster innovation, growth, and competitiveness’.

The is EU badging the upcoming legislation as a ‘new rulebook for digital services’ and its regulations firmly take aim at the big platforms such as Facebook and Google. Firms that are identified as operators of so-called ‘gatekeeper online platforms’ –  which the EU sees as being ‘bottlenecks between businesses and consumers for important digital services’ – will come under increased scrutiny as part of the package of recommendations. And the proposals include fines, in line with existing violations of European competition law, for gatekeepers that are shown to break the rules.

A different route

Whether the EU’s legislation succeeds or not, there’s certainly space for some fresh thinking on internet users and their data, which brings us to the idea of personal online data stores, or Pods. The concept aims to put the power in the hands (or at the fingertips) of users themselves, who can choose what data to upload to their Pods and with whom they share the information. Pods work with Solid – a protocol that ‘provides applications with secure and permissioned access to externally stored data in an interoperable way’. And adding a large amount of stardust, is the fact that one of the driving forces behind Pods and Solid is Tim Berners-Lee.

To energize the open source project, Lee co-founded Inrupt – which raised around $30 million of series A funding in 2021 – and recruited some fellow big names to join the project. These include security guru Bruce Schneier as Chief of Security Architecture. Inrupt supports access to a production-grade Enterprise Solid Server (ESS), which allows companies to build novel applications based on Solid Pods. And the latest version of the architecture, updated in June 2022, now reportedly supports tens of millions of users and concurrent transactions. The server enables applications and entities to request access to data held by Pods, which Pod owners may authorize, reject, or revoke.

Pods are an idea that has been brewing for some time. Lee began work on Solid back in 2015. And while Pod users are still ahead of the curve (if you’re tempted, there’s plenty of information on how to get a Pod), wheels are turning to bring ideas to fruition. The BBC’s Research & Development team has been exploring potential applications based on Solid. Working concepts include a personal media profile that uses data from BBC, Spotify, and Netflix to provide more informed recommendations to Pod owners. The team adds that local event details could be included to further enrich the experience.

Beyond the silos

There are other developers too who are dipping their toes in the water, such as the UK’s National Health Service, which has a pilot project where patients use Pods to store their own medical records. Bigger operations include work underway with the government of Flanders, which has ambitions to provide a public service platform – based on Pods and Solid – for its 6.5 million residents. These path-finding activities will pay dividends in terms of road-testing the technology, creating a pool of willing Pod visionaries, and providing blueprints that others can build off.

Apps that could have the most potential are those that leverage the power of Pods to do what gatekeepers (to re-use the EU’s terminology) of online platforms are unable to do today. Services that break out of the data silos could provide a major reality check moment for today’s internet giants. In principle, if developers can win the trust of Pod owners they could bridge a wide range of services and make clear the rewards to users for enabling data sharing.

Whether users will be paid for sharing their search histories with search engines of the future remains to be seen, but treating users as customers, not the product would feel like progress.