Dutch data privacy campaigner Marleen Stikker had a revelation of the ‘Big Brother’ potential of digital technologies in 1994, just ten years after the iconic date of Orwell’s 1984. As a founder of Digital City – Europe’s first virtual community – Stikker was offered a demonstration of the dark side of what were then emerging technologies.
DECODE (short for DEcentralised Citizen Owned Data Ecosystem) is an EU Commission project, and part of its Horizon 2020 programme to incubate and accelerate innovative ideas that could deliver social value in Europe. The initiative aims to develop and test new technologies that could one day be used to create a fairer and more competitive internet. One of the key concerns for the project is how to reign in the personal data economy and put users back in control of their personal information.
Redesigning the social media contract
Each time a user signs up with digital services from the likes of Google and Microsoft, they’re entering into a contract with that company. Users are granted limitless access to the platform so they can share baby pictures, fall in love with others or start political movements. In exchange, they forfeit their personal data when they sign the terms and conditions. This proposition has been incredibly successful for some companies. For example, Facebook hit two billion monthly active users this year. But is any of this fair on the users?
In a European Commission survey, 67 percent of internet users said they feel concerned about how their personal data is used, but their online behaviour doesn’t reflect the same sentiment. Around 75 percent of users agree to the terms and conditions of social media services without ever reading them.
“People should be more aware of the relationship they’re entering into,” says Tom Symons, principal researcher in the policy and research team at Nesta, a UK-based think tank working on the DECODE project. “We think people should have a greater level of choice about whether that’s the system they want to enter into. At the moment, most terms and conditions are binary – you either accept or you [don’t use the platform].”
The problem with terms and conditions is that they’re often far too long and complicated for the average user to understand. According to research from Carnegie Mellon University, it would take 76 days to read the privacy policies for the most common online platforms. DECODE is trying to create an alternative to existing data collection policies and allow users to decide more easily who can use their personal information, for what purposes and for how long.
Building on GDPR
In 2018, the GDPR regulation will drastically overhaul the way organisations collect and store personal information. It represents the beginning of a change in strategy for how the European Union regulates the personal data economy. But while GDPR can impose fines on the mishandling of personal data, it does very little to provide an alternative to existing practices.
“We think GDPR is a really helpful addition and at the same time we think it doesn’t do everything that we’re trying to achieve in DECODE,” explains Symons. “We want to create tools that would put people in charge of their data. This technology will be completely open source so once it’s been created it can be used to rapidly scale up and disseminate new platforms.”
The DECODE project is focused on bringing together researchers, policymakers and programmers from across the EU. By connecting top minds from across the continent it wants to explore how blockchain technologies, internet of things devices and artificial intelligence (AI) can be combined to build alternatives to the digital services that currently dominate the internet.
Accelerating the EU tech sector
While most digital services can trace their roots back to Silicon Valley, very few European startups have managed to scale their services globally. Currently internet services are dominated by just a handful of US-based tech giants: Apple, Facebook, Google and Amazon, each of which have been fined or sanctioned for anti-competitive behaviour or aggressive tax avoidance.
As the DECODE project seeks to redefine the structure of the personal data economy, an enormous opportunity exists to level the playing field and create space for European startups to compete. Advances in emerging fields such as AI, fintech and data mining can be built with personal data security already embedded in them, potentially providing competitive advantage over US-based firms.
“What we’re trying to do is find alternative business models for digital startups, not just how they can be financially sustainable, but also how they can create social value,” says Symons. “One of those is the idea of platform cooperativism, which is where users are involved in the governance and decision making of the organisation.”
Piloting a new data economy
In order to put these ideas into practice, the DECODE project will begin four pilot programmes in 2018. Over a two year period, new technologies and platforms will be developed in fields such as the sharing economy, the internet of things and digital democratic engagement.
A project based in Barcelona will pioneer new forms of anonymous authentication, allowing users to verify their credentials without revealing their identity. This could lead to internet users being able to securely vote in national elections, or to check their credit score without revealing who they are. Pilots like this will establish new technologies that can be freely copied and incorporated into new platforms that are developed by European startups.
“The other half of what we’re trying to do is create a data commons, which will become part of the innovation ecosystem and put users in control of how their data is used and shared,” says Symons. “By making personal data available in this way, it becomes a valuable resource for innovators and entrepreneurs to look for insights about how products and services may respond to the needs of people.”
Over the next two years, the DECODE project will assess the success of its four pilot programmes and study whether they’ve been able to increase participation levels in new alternative platforms. The technologies they’re building today may not replace Google or Facebook overnight, but they should create a framework for future startups to build upon. Whether they succeed or fail, the progress they make will be invaluable in directing the EU towards a fairer, more competitive internet.