You are worth $250 dollars for Facebook each year — if you owned your data, you’d get way more out of it.

When you log into Facebook, Google Ecosystem, Twitter or practically most free applications you use nowadays, the deal is clear:

If you don’t pay for the product, you are the product.

The Faustian deal you strike by clicking ‘agree’ on those complex legal agreements, that almost nobody (can) read, is that the makers of those apps can do about almost anything with the data you generate from using the site. It’s surreal what those big companies know about you. The Cambridge Analytica scandal is just the tip of the iceberg. There is a whole advertisement industry interested to know as much as possible about you. 
If so many people can profit off your data, the question remains:

How much are you worth?

Consider this: on average you are worth about $250 a year to Facebook, $360 to Google and $40 to Twitter. Adding up all of the data-focussed services you use for free, you are likely worth roughly $1000 to the social media giants.

The issue of privacy aside, there is an argument to be made that giving away your personal data, your golden eggs, is a ‘fair’ exchange — after all, you get useful tools for free. At some point those companies need to make money too; so what if you get a few ads on the side? (To be clear, we don’t #surveillancecaptialism practices and there is surely other ways to make money then to liberally selling off user data and selling you products. Even though this is common practice, its bad for your freedom and and destroys our democracy).

But have you considered that if you own all your data you could be getting a much better deal?

I’m not just talking about money, but better products tailored to your needs, convenience and much, much more. At worldbrain.io we are working hard on making that possible. Skip to the section “How to get there?” to learn more.

Before we start, what does ‘owning your data’ really mean?

It means the ability to have full control over who has access to data that is generated by you or associated with you, ideally combined from all the services or apps you use. This means that your data is either stored on your own devices, personal servers, or stored externally and encrypted in a way that ensures that only you have control over it.

What becomes possible if you own your data?

1) Marketplaces where you are paid for sharing your data

In the current situation, Facebook gets paid to share your data. They make all the profits while you get a useful tool — one which arguably became less useful as advertisers, trolls and bots (who make them profits) colonise it.

If all your data was in your control, it could be worth thousands for you.

In this scenario it’s you who the companies or researchers need to approach in order to make a deal and decide on a price. Instead of Facebook having all the power, users like you are the ones marketers have to ask and adapt to, not Facebook.

App developers, scientists, companies or advertisers wouldn’t need to obey to the restrictions now often imposed on the access to your data by proprietary services, often for strategic reasons. With your consent, they’d be able to have access to a much broader set of data, which could spark a whole new ecosystem — one, where you are the center of trade and apps and services are tailored to your needs. (more on that in 3.)

Although still in its infancy, blockchain technology could be a key enabler to create the infrastructure needed to build a decentralised peer-to-peer (with no middle man) marketplace for privacy focussed data exchange. (Check out projects like Ocean Protocol or Enigma, two new projects working on this problem)

2) Interoperability — Less lock-ins

“There is no written rule that says ‘the best product necessarily wins’. Instead it’s the company that holds on to the monopoly of the mind”
— Nir Eyal, Author of “Hooked — How to Build Habit-Forming Products”

It’s in the business interests of many companies to keep you ‘hooked’, or addicted, to their products. Additionally many apps are designed for network effects that keep you and your data locked into their systems.

We all know the dread of being locked into one service, because the costs of switching to another one with better features is too much work. Or with social networks like Facebook, that you can’t simply switch, because all your friends are on one, but not the other network.

What if you preferred some of the features or want to contact people in other social networks, like Google Plus, Path or Akasha? Not only can’t you move all your posts & messages, you also can’t interact with people on other networks — you have to obey Facebook operational dictate.

If your data was centrally stored on a server/store that you control, it would create a data standard between services that is called interoperability; the ability to use shared data structures without the need for custom integration between services (like done with IFTTT or Zapier).
For you that means you can seamlessly switch between similar services to the one serving your need the most, without losing data in the process.

It would make it possible that social media platforms to use posts you make and display, process or distribute them in a way that makes sense in the app’s context, while the data stays the same. You could even send messages from Whatsapp to Telegram. How cool would that be?

EU I love you so much!!

Fortunately for European citizens, the General Data Protection Regulations (GDPR), going into effect May 25 2018, give EU citizens the right to get all their data out of any service they use. This would provide the groundwork and incentives for interoperability on the data level and would have another welcoming side effect — gradually getting you the best possible services for your needs.

3) Hyper-customisation — The best services for you

If all your data was under your control, and stored in formats that allow interoperability, then all apps could use the same, or similarly structured, data. For example, every messenger app has pretty much the same information components that need to be transmitted. They consist of images, text, video or gifs, authors, groups, reading status and your social graph.

Where they differ is mostly in their features and workflows. 
By standardising the data formats apps can latch onto, your switching costs would become drastically lower, thus increasing competition.
Because of the ability to lose users much more easily, companies would realise the need to become very specialised in serving less users with better features, instead of serving everyone ‘just enough to keep them’.

As a result, over time, everyone would find and use the products that suit their needs/workflows the best.

Hypercompetition and interoperability may then be the welcome increase of cross-company collaboration, because companies would realise the need for collaborating on key infrastructure elements to save costs. The increased focus in building the best products plus the increased incentive for infrastructure collaboration may also drive us straight into a service-based economy.

In such a system companies grow their value by earning real revenue by providing the most useful product to the maximum amount of users — not because they are able to suck and lock in as many users as possible and scrupulously monetise data to increase the (virtual) stock value of their company. 
Through that incentives and opportunities for creating monopolies would drastically decrease.

The economic models underpinning such a shift are ones like Steward Ownership companies, as promoted by the folks from Purpose-Economy.org.

Their co-founder Armin Steuernagel explains this concept in his recent TEDx talk. We will further expand on this in other blog posts.

How to get there?

Data ownership in itself does not provide value without a marketplace to make use of it — many projects tried that before. What is necessary is an end consumer product that ties the ability to gather your personal data to another value proposition.

What does this mean? Unfortunately at the end, convenience almost always trumps privacy/data-ownership, and thus data ownership needs to be a byproduct, not the main selling point. It needs to be baked into the values of a kick-ass, useful product.

At worldbrain.io we are hard at work developing software that one day might be able provide such a service. We are not saying that it will be THE only one, but I believe that what we build has a reasonable chance of being an important driver in a transition towards greater data ownership and widespread interoperability.

What we set out to develop is an open-source, decentralised and privacy focussed search engine for your digital knowledge. Called Memex, it aims to give you full-text search across all the websites you have visited, and the apps, services and devices you use. It will be your ideal web-research assistant, your digital memory extension. 
By integrating with all those services, it would create the necessary bridges, and shared data formats needed for interoperable standards and easy data portability.

We recently released the first version of Memex. 
It’s an open-source browser extension to instantly find websites again, without the need for bookmarking them, or keeping a zillion open tabs. It’s already enabling you to full-text search your browsing history and bookmarks, and filter by time, domain or tags. Essentially you can search for things the way your brain remembers them: “That article I saw six months ago on ‘nytimes.com’ with the words ‘climate change’ in the text (Download here)

Memex’ search overview. Full-text search, time filter, domain filter, tag filter.

The next big features we’re building is the ability for you to make private comments, annotations and custom lists to sort web pages, so you can ditch cumbersome switching between browser-external, and mostly unsuitable note taking applications to archive your thoughts.

Privacy first. All your data stays on your computer, and we have never access to it — noone has without your consent. Also our business model does not depend on us owning your data. #EndSurveillanceCapitalism 
We wholly support the myData Declaration and commit to its principles.

We’re currently crowdfunding the next logical phase — Memex Cloud. It’s an open-source, subscription based cloud service that offers encrypted backup and the ability to add and search your information from any device. You’ll be able to share and discuss comments, references and annotations with peers, extend functionality through custom plugins and app/service integration, and, via completely open APIs, you can share & monetise your data without any restrictions imposed by us. To give you full control of your data, Memex Cloud can also be hosted on your own servers, without the need to pay us either.

We still have a long way to go to reach our product vision, and many technical, philosophical and economic challenges to solve. With Memex, I believe we have already made some important first steps in this direction.

If you care about the problems we are solving as much as we do, and like our approach and want to support us, we’d love to get in touch with you.

You can help in many ways. Specifically we are looking for more code contributors (DevOps, AWS, ReactJS, security, Datprotocol.org), community managers, financial experts, video makers, product designers, branding experts and students who want to help out as brand advocates and spread Memex in their universities. Even if you don’t fall under these categories and want to help, we’d like to hear from you.
There are tons of things to do where help is needed. 
We’ll find something to collaborate on! :)

Cheers!

Thanks to the folks helping me to refine this post and sharing their perspective, and making this post better. @Tegan, @Gerben, @Charlie Mathews @Jon Pienaar @Jonathan Poltak Samosir