In recent weeks, the topic of data privacy, data security, data sovereignty, and how social media platforms harvest and use our information has reared its head again. The most recent Facebook whistleblower, who divulged how the platform knows it is responsible for helping to create divisions through its algorithm, which uses our data to deliver that content, ignores this because it is not good for business.
The latest revelation brings back memories of Brittany Kaiser. She caused a global stir when she explained how Cambridge Analytica leveraged our data to help change hearts and minds during Donald Trump’s presidential campaign.
Data sovereignty became more crucial than ever after her revelations, further explained in the documentary The Great Hack. One organization, polypoly, wants to change the way we use our information and give us back control. And it believes that EU citizens can be the first to gain absolute command over their data.
At the beginning of 2019, I founded polypoly.eu, intending to restore sovereignty over digital data for everyone and thus support European data capital flow to local markets. Rather than being mere data providers, members of Polypoly cooperatives co-own the same underlying technology: the polyPod.
Julio Santos, the technical cofounder of Fractal – creators of the Fractal Protocol, which it says will enable radical markets for data and help keep the web open and accessible for everyone – spoke with me recently to understand how we might be able to regain control of our information.
Beginning with research
Let’s talk a bit about polypoly. When did you start it? And what have you built so far? What can people already do with it?
So the research started around five or six years ago. We did the research upfront and before we founded the company. Therefore, the main message when we launched was, “we know how to fix it right now because we’ve done the research.”
Ultimately, this is not only a technical problem. The whole data privacy issue is partly a technical problem, but it has to do with economic incentives. It has to do with our laws, so it’s a multi-dimensional predicament.
One aspect was, of course, how to build a company that others cannot take over or threaten; A system that is so rock solid nobody can harm it. And then, of course, we also built the prototype – the first version of the polyPod and the first version of the polyPedia. With the polyPod, if you download it today, it lets you look behind the scenes of the data economy. The polyPod that is out there today is a front end for the polyPedia. The polyPedia is a system where we store all information about companies acting within the data economy.
One of the most critical aspects of that ecosystem is trust, and trust is something you have to earn. And so, the first iteration we made cannot harm you at all because none of your data is involved. We will show you that we know what we’re talking about. And then the second version, which is coming very soon, is then about downloading your data from organizations such as Facebook and showing the context in which the data is stored. So, if you’re in Germany, it means you have a contract with Facebook Ireland, and those laws are in charge. We can show clearly that this is your data, stored on their systems, and what that means.
Data sovereignty and GDPR
Interesting. So it’s kind of like mapping your data, what they store, who else can see it, your rights, and what regulations are involved. It’s a complete view of what’s going on.
Correct. In the EU, GDPR is a right, but it’s not easy to administer. And a law or right you have which you cannot execute is no right at all. And so, we have to make it easier for people to understand what’s going on with their data.
So why can it be harmful that somebody knows your location data? One of the biggest problems we have in the whole data economy is an entirely abstract threat model for people who have not studied computer science. Nobody can understand what it means when somebody knows my location data or what can be done with pictures. For example, if you’re posting an image, the social media platform can use this photo to find out what kind of trademarks you’re using; a Boss t-shirt or furniture from Ikea. That is then giving these people insight into your estimated earnings and brand preferences. Worse still, all this is very intransparent.
Education and cooperatives
I agree, education is vital and is the only way that we get to make people aware of what it is that is going on. Because if they’re going to have an impact and have a voice, they first need to understand this landscape, and it’s deliberately opaque. So it’s not exactly easy to understand without help. I have I’ve seen that polypoly is consists of three linked organizations. So you’ve got the cooperative, the enterprise, and the foundation. Can you give us an overview of why these three organizations exist and what the relationship between them is,
The foundation is there to build co-ops. The company is incorporated as an SCE, and that means this is a Pan-European cooperative. You can only become a member of a co-op if you are a European citizen. This is for a simple reason. If you have foreigners as members, for example, if you have US citizens as a member of European co-op, it can happen that the co-op will be in front of a court in New York City. So the co-ops are acting as a legal fortress for the local citizens.
That means we have to build, sooner or later, co-ops in other parts of the world. We are currently discussing with people from Canada, the US, and India to build co-ops there. And that’s the role of the foundation – to create these coops everywhere. It’s a kind of incubator for local co-ops. The critical aspect of keeping co-ops local is simple. One is making sure that in the data economy, organizations will pay taxes locally. When your data generates money, the associated taxes are invested in your community and not somewhere else. And secondly, for you as a local citizen, only your law should be applied. International law is untenable for noncitizens. So we have to make sure that everything will happen locally. That’s the reason we have the foundation and the co-ops in all the different countries.
I was looking at your website, and I believe now I was looking at the cooperative website. It’s very Europe-centric, so I was going to ask why? I guess the answer is that it’s what we’re starting with, right? It’s the first course.
Yes. It is the first one, and it is made for Europeans. Nevertheless, the data economy market is global. So that means we have to build other co-ops, which will be owned by our citizens only in these countries. That means the core is 100% owned by the users, but the local users take care of their rights and opinions. So, if the European users want to go in that direction, but the Americans want to go in that other direction, that’s fine. We are not so arrogant to think what is right in Europe is suitable for every other country. And so that all the local co-ops have are the opportunity to adapt the system to the local culture and law, but the interfaces are still the same.
A company that wants to use this decentralized data network will find a global network of interfaces or ports that use precisely the same interface but always use a local adaptation. There is no data without economies, so the enterprise is serving the economy. We’re building tools to find an easy way from a centralized data economy to decentralized data. The enterprise is financed by the economy, and the users fund the co-op. So if you imagine we have nowadays, I would guess, some 100 million Facebook users in Europe. If just 1% of these Europeans would join the European co-op and buy one share, that would be powerful; owned by the users, financed by the users, founded by the users, and funded by the users.
Understood. You talk a lot about data unions, and that’s what a co-op is in this context, right? You’re already thinking of more than one co-op, a European co-op, and then maybe you have an American co-op. Do you believe that there is room for multiple European cooperatives in which they compete for user attention by saying, “this is how we handle your data; we do things a little bit differently,” and then you aggregate people based on these preferences?
Competition is an essential part of our economic system. So yes, there should be, and there is competition. I guess the only thing that is very important here is that interoperability is always in place. There is an excellent organization called MyData Global, which builds standards for handling personal data. And there are already a lot of companies that are part of that organization, and all of them have signed an agreement that they will make sure that it is straightforward for the user to transfer data from one potential solution to the next one. That’s a crucial aspect because you never know which answer is the right one. There must be lots of different players trying lots of other ideas, and then the user will decide what the right one for them is.
Portability and interoperability
With a commitment to interoperability, you will allow those things to happen. You’re saying, as a company, we believe that we have the solution for this, but we also may not. And perhaps the answer is to ask somebody else, so this interoperability, this portability of data, becomes essential.
What we would like to be in the future is something like the public water supply for data. So, we are taking care of the pipes in the earth, we are taking care of everything that’s in those pipes is clear water, and then others can use our infrastructure to create a water supply business. For example, when it comes to health data, we are not an expert in it. We are an expert in decentralized data systems. But there are experts out there, who maybe would like to use a decentralized solution, but have no clue how to build these kinds of technology. And so our role is to create the underlying infrastructure, and everybody else can sit on top of that and interact with the user. The idea of the polyPod is that it is extendable. Everybody can build features for the polyPod. If the user wants to have it, they can download that feature and use it or not, depending on whether the user likes that feature or trusts the supplier.
In the next part of the interview, in addition to going deeper on data sovereignty, I speak with Santos about Tim Berners-Lee’s Solid project, data income plans, and why it is vitally important to redress the balance of knowledge to know as much about Mark Zuckerberg as possible his organization knows about us.