When was the last time you actually read a terms of service agreement before clicking “accept”?
Although it’s become commonplace to see and agree to these digital policies that are in practical terms only offering a take-it-or-leave-it proposition, each one of those accept buttons is another step toward giving up our rights to privacy and our personal data that may in fact be far more valuable than we realize.
Facebook’s privacy scandals serve to illustrate that personal data has become a valuable commodity in the digital age. The latest allegation against the social network was that it had given more than 150 companies far greater access to people’s data than it had disclosed previously, according to the New York Times. And that revelation came after a string of others that started almost a year ago when we learned that political consulting firm Cambridge Analytica had used Facebook’s data to influence the 2016 presidential campaign.
Cheap and instant communications coupled with the protection of our privacy would be the best of both worlds. But how can this be achieved? Decentralization may be the answer. Uncensorable communication, personal cloud servers, and private data streaming would allow users to take back control of their privacy and personal data. Blockchain technology could be used to revolutionize the way we chat to each other, from basic text messages to grandiose interconnected communities, and a few startups are bringing the best of decentralization to bear on our future communications.
Freedom House, a U.S.-based independent watchdog group, said that internet freedom had declined for the eighth consecutive year in 2018, with an increasing number of governments tightening control over their citizens’ activities on the web. Regardless of the agenda, many voices are monitored and censored on social media, and once governments have such power it’s not a great leap for them to begin using it to orchestrate influence campaigns and manipulate society. India’s government has recently proposed to introduce a policy which would require companies to take down any content deemed inappropriate by authorities. Censorship efforts like these will be far more difficult to implement in the decentralized world.
Mainframe is a privacy platform and an example of a company seeking to build secure communications. Users have the ability to send and receive private messages on a network that is designed to prevents data from ever being censored. Only the user with the correct keys will be able to unlock the data.
“Blockchain is decentralized, transparent and open, but you can move encrypted data in a manner that is accountable,” Mick Hagen, Mainframe’s founder and CEO, told the Deseret News. “While the decentralized structure relies on hundreds, or even thousands of verifiers, in some ways it is much more private.”
Personal Cloud Servers and Interconnected Communities
The concept of community has evolved enormously since the late nineties. Gone are the days of super-geeks interacting through dimly lit rooms in IRC channels and the old bulletin board/forum style of community. Nowadays, it can be difficult to seek friends who are not in our usual hashtags or friend group, and that’s one problem that a startup called Urbit is seeking to solve.
Urbit gives users their own personal cloud servers that can connect with each other. Those servers can store data, run software, connect to other users, just about anything their users may wish for them to do. Effectively, individuals will be able to own their own “digital land,” and register it under one of hundreds of possible communities. This way, the user will be able to meet new people in their “star system,” a social network of sorts that they find and join with their cloud server, while also being able to seek out the content they want.
And the incentive for users to move to these new platforms and create content there will come from startups like Cent that will reward contributors directly. Unlike the majority of social media networks that harvest data from users while generating revenue from adverting, the founders behind Cent say the community should determine the value of the content they create and reward them with payments. The platform currently allows its users to post questions that offer monetary rewards or bounties to whomever provides the best answers or contributions.
Max Brody, the founder and CEO of Cent, said, “Since most of the interactions on Cent happen via small financial transactions, it’s simple for us to take a small percentage of each transaction as revenue. Since we already have over 10,000 users, that transaction-based revenue can really add up. Right now, however, we are not focused on making money. Most of our energy is being directed at growing the network’s user base and introducing new incentive mechanisms.
Changing the face of communication
It has become abundantly clear that the more advancements we make in technology, the more diligent we have to be in controlling our data and the privacy around our personal information. Giving up that control shouldn’t be a prerequisite to using the majority of online platforms and services. Blockchain innovation and companies like Mainframe, Urbit and Cent represent a new wave of development that will allow people to take back control of their privacy and personal data.