A few years ago, seven UK university professors took a few million pounds, some big name investors, and a ground-breaking team, and they came up with a plan to give some of the Internet back to the people.
When most of us use the Internet today, we do it through apps and websites. Facebook keeps us in touch, Google keeps us in the know. Our maps give us directions and our shopping apps get us our groceries.
To access these apps and websites we often need an account, and even when we don’t, sites try their best to know who we are when we’re using them. Apps and websites today hold onto as much information as they can, because having that information makes them richer, quicker, more helpful, and more valuable.
And we think that’s great.
But what if we held onto the data they want from us for them, and they were more about being a website?
What is the HAT? The HAT is a database, with a computer brain, that you can own for yourself, and if and when you ask it to this database will go out and find information about you from Facebook, Google, Spotify, Apple, and the other apps and websites you love. It will pull all that information about into its own storage, so that you can have and own it for yourself.
The companies that run websites need your information, at least some of it, to run your apps and calendars. So getting a HAT doesn’t mean those companies won’t have your data too (at least not yet).
But now you’ll have it too, and so the next app you give it to may not need to hold as much of it on their own servers. And then the app after that may not need to own any of it at all — they’ll just ask you the questions they need answers for and happily go on their merry way.
And when we say you own the data inside your HAT for yourself, we mean it. No one owns or can access your HAT but you, including Gus, and us. Neither Gus nor us.
The HAT is a microserver. HAT’s have a “computer brain” inside them (we call it a microserver), and the microserver can do cool things with your data when you own it. It can study it, so that you get some of the same insights about yourself that companies do (say, how often you drink coffee or your average flight speed on an aeroplane). It can remember things for you, things you might not want to trust a company with or write down publicly. And it can learn to talk to companies on your behalf.
Everyone having a HAT gives us an alternative to trusting companies to store and protect everything there is to be known about us online, always, and on their terms exclusively, for the rest of time.
To make that eventuality come sooner, we’ve made them easy for companies to use, and they mean little to no changes to the way the we access and use the apps and websites that we care about. The only thing that changes is how and where our information is stored.
That change is interesting, perhaps scary (to some), exciting (to others), and ultimately hugely beneficial for the Internet economy, the companies that use them, the people that own them, and our society as a whole.
We need to change the Internet. The HAT and HATDeX exist to correct a bit of an error in judgment — one with ethical, economic, and practical sides to it.
Some verbiage was reserved last year for Sir Tim Berners-Lee’s waxing over the departure our society has taken from his vision in 1989 of the beginnings of the web. Nesta, Which?, and a long list of similarly-insightful organisations repeated his concerns. The Internet is broken.
The web injected inter-connectivity into the world when it was created, and arguments for and against it these days sort of amount to whether faster, cheaper communications from anyone to anyone is a good thing. If we’re measuring by usability, the jury’s back, because the communications sent just today worldwide will almost certainly be greater than those sent in the entirety of the year 1970. Your average teenager likely communicates more in an hour than I literally ever have with my grandmother.
This ballooning of gross communications is net economically and societally advantageous. We are all of us healthier, wealthier, and more fly because of it. But, and here’s the shocker, this advance wasn’t all net positive.
I’ll give you a second to de-clutch your pearls.
The Internet as it is. The Internet boom to date has primarily come from organisations that were founded to make money using it, and while most of the time the alignment of incentives between us and these companies is pretty good, their rapid advance means we ought to take a second to look around and see what’s befallen us while we forged forward.
In 2018, that appraisal looks like this.
Online organisations’ growth over the last 30 years has required them to figure out the tech infrastructure that it takes to get us a date on Friday night or a pair of shoes delivered to our house. Eventually, that infrastructure has come to make them very powerful, as interconnectivity and the information it generates is such a supercharger for organisations that they have become as effective and wealthy as some governments, and obviously much more so than us puny mortals.
Companies and governments have held onto information about us for a long time — but it used be information they we had access to as well.
That’s now changed. Some companies today know things about me that even my governments don’t, and as people we seem to have little of these sorts of insights at all. For example, my brain is very bad at predicting where exactly I am going to be at 5:43pm tomorrow afternoon, but there’s a healthy raft of companies who could take a guess down to the square metre, given where I’ve been yesterday and today and a thousand days before.
If I had access to the same information that they do, I probably wouldn’t be that much better of a predictor of my own future. I am not (yet) a computer. But I would probably be able to help decide the kinds of people that get access to that valuable information. If I don’t have access to it I have to trust the market.
That’s today’s state of affairs. 99% of the Internet today is built by companies who provide information and services to other companies, governments, and us end users. And as it has becomes critical to the whole of our everyday lives, the power imbalance from their owning the whole racket has started to chafe.
Valuable companies create healthy economies, which are good for us humans. Successful humans create stable societies, which are good for our governments. Trusted governments create comfortable environments for successful companies. I know it’s a bit more symbiotic than that, but in essence we’re all good for one another so long as nothing is allowed to get too far out of kilter.
To make sure it doesn’t, we need to rebalance the scales a bit.
The Internet as it should be. Here, in some simple examples, is what re-kiltering could look like.
If the Internet ought to be a place where customers can go to willingly buy and sell things from companies, in clear transactions where the good and/or service exchanged is equitable, let’s re-imagine data ownership.
In this relative utopia, one might imagine an advertising company who has a user who watches an online ad. At some point, this user might be given an account, one that records their viewing history and whether they click, skip, or scrutinize their ads. Today, the ad platforms that do this all own and control the information put into that account for themselves, and because they do their services come with rampant user stalking.
Now imagine that account wasn’t owned by the ad company, it was just provided by them, and owned by the user. The advertiser was offered the opportunity to retain access to the information inside the account whenever it was time to deliver a new ad, perhaps accessing anything required to target the material to them, without storing or controling it for themselves.
In this scenario, at the minimum, we as the users of ad platforms could fully and properly walk away from them if we chose. And at the most we might be able to have both targeted ads AND relative privacy at the same time.
Would you choose to give your custom to an ad platform that didn’t stalk you? The brands would — they get the targeting anyways.
Imagine a human resources company that’s processing job applications for their client. Today, applicants have to provide static, unverifiable information to their prospective employers, and once do their resumes are owned and held by that employer.
What if instead, as they are considering whether or not to employ someone, the company could simply ask qualifying questions of their applicants, sourcing answers from data that those people held privately?
Creating, exchanging, analysing, protecting, and storing an entire job application or resume’s worth of information seems to me like an absurdly inefficient way to answer the question “can you prove you have at least five years experience coding web applications, y/n.”
These and dozens more examples are our vision of the Internet as it should be, as it is being built today by our customers. To a user, it need be no more confusing than the creation of the normal user accounts for any of websites they sign up for today. But to businesses this is the difference between the Orwellian past and a newly-efficient digital economy of the future.
Today’s Internet is ripe for change. We don’t like the advertising. We don’t how much it seems that Zuckerberg controls our democracies. We don’t like that Netflix can’t tell what shows we want to watch.
In one way or another we feel like we are being preyed upon, and that is primarily because it is only the benevolence of companies that today protects us from web predators.
That is not enough protection.
So let’s change the Internet.
About the HAT
The Hub of All Things is a way to own your own personal data. It’s a microserver — a database, with a computer brain — that helps you store for yourself the information you give your calendars, social, media, and phone. Here, this video explains it better than we do.
The HAT started a few years ago in Cambridge, England, and now it’s raising a new round of financing from passionate Internet users like you. Invest online at www.crowdcube.com/hatdex for as little as £10.