The Internet’s Untapped Potential
Proposing a new ethos for digital stewardship and a responsible data society.
Today, nearly half of the world’s population are digital citizens — connected to each other via the internet. Collectively as consumers we own some 3.5 billion smartphones, and on a regular basis rely on an additional 20–25 billion connected devices (such as smart IoT sensors, connected appliances, and wearables). Combined, these technologies of digital surveillance and data extraction yield an astonishing amount of data every single day — by at least one count, some 2.5 quintillion bytes.
For the most part, users and businesses do not directly benefit from the production and use of all that data. Even though users do receive some “free” services in exchange for their personal data, their actual value to users is dwarfed by what they indirectly and often permanently give up in return. Plus, while some businesses directly benefit from all those data flows, most companies remain shut out of any meaningful opportunity to utilize personal data, especially in human-empowering ways.
Much of the individual, social, and economic value inherent in the Net is locked away in separate silos and fiefdoms, subject to the limited incentive structures of online platform companies. As individuals, and as collectives, the vast potential of our human autonomy and agency in the digital space remains largely untapped. Opportunities for enhancing human well-being and flourishing continue to be wasted, each and every day.
The standards and protocols of the internet were intended to preference — and empower — the many people at the ends of the network connections, rather than those relatively few entities operating at the center. To date, the reality has been otherwise. One even can argue that the current Net ethos has been co-opted in ways that have served to entrench certain asymmetries of power.
This blog posting briefly explains why this is the case, and what we can do about it. An accompanying white paper can be found here.
Meet the New Intermediaries
The Web platforms — and their supporting ecosystems of data aggregators, brokers, advertisers and marketers — have prime opportunities to analyze and share and sell user information. These companies often use insights gleaned from users’ online behaviors, and then try to manipulate or influence users to want certain products and services, support certain viewpoints, based on what is best for their bottom line. The status quo is not in users’ best interests, as individual human beings, or the collective interests of our communities and society at large.
In real life, people can rely on basic human trust and accountability to be customers, and clients, and patrons to trusted businesses. Crucially, those who access and use personal data often lack any such personal relationship with users. Those entities’ actions demonstrate no sense of care, or loyalty, or stewardship owed to users. One’s data seemingly is everywhere, available to anyone, through platform companies, third-party brokers, or hacks and breaches. Users often lack any opportunity to question or challenge or oppose a company’s collection and uses of personal data.
In too many ways, then, the person as a data object has less autonomy and agency — freedom of thought and action — than when she is offline. In essence, people have fewer “digital” rights than they have “analog” rights.
Asserting Our Digital Rights: Digital rights are greater or equal to Analog rights
Increasingly, as we become digital beings, our technologies are shaping us as much as we shape them. We need to envision and hold much-needed societal conversations about issues such as control, trust, and accountability.
We need new technology overlays to the Net/Web which embody core human values. This is especially the case even as the world struggles to cope with challenges such as a lethal pandemic, economic distress, and systemic racial injustice. And of course, the looming specter of environmental catastrophe.
The time is ripe to challenge, and reverse course on, this growing inequality. Modern technologies should actually empower human beings, not reduce them. This means that users should have fundamental rights to control access to their personal data — no less than what people typically can control in their everyday life. All of us deserve an internet where our digital rights on the Web are no less than our analog rights in the rest of life. Or, put another way:
Creating Digital Stewardship
My goal — and that of the Oasis Foundation — is to propose that we adopt a new kind of stewardship ethos for the Web. Digital stewardship entails grounding our computational systems of data and AI in human values like autonomy and agency. By building digital technologies that empower humans at the “edge” of the network, we can breathe life into respectful new market opportunities and social systems.
There are three specific elements that together create this new model of stewardship: digital Tech, ecosystems of Players, and stewardship Rules. Or, put another way:
The concept embraces three interrelated components.
- Digital Tech: This refers to the countless computational systems being built and deployed throughout society. These computational systems combine personal and environmental data, advanced algorithms, and mediating interfaces. What it means to be a “digital being” in the 21st Century, in all its complexity and challenges, is a deep inquiry unto itself.
- Ecosystems of Players: This refers to a systems-based perspective on the mix of technologies, networks, platforms, communities, and related social/political/market systems — and of course the human beings behind all of it. Together, these nested systems make up the backdrop against which the “digital” interplays in myriad ways.
- Stewardship of Rules: This refers to an ethics-informed stance, premised on fostering a certain caring attitude towards the people affected by digital ecosystems. Stewardship holds the potential of supporting the healthy flourishing of all humans and their systems. In this case, the inspiration comes from environmental stewardship, where people willingly take on obligations to protect the health, resilience, and diversity of the flora and fauna that comprise the natural world.
This new concept of stewarding digital ecosystems seeks to return to the human-centric roots of technologies and markets, and the social systems that create them. For those who voluntarily assume the role of Digital Steward — in their organizations and in the world at large — opportunities abound for creating and applying new “rules of the road” to help govern our society. These can include companies adopting more data-sensitive business models, technologists crafting edge-centric digital tools, and policymakers advocating for public policies that empower ordinary end users. In so doing, we can foster social relationships founded on trust and support.
Issuing a Call to Action
On behalf of the Oasis Foundation, this is a call to create and inhabit a new world of digital stewardship. We issue a specific invitation for all stakeholders to endorse the concept of digital stewardship, and work together to create a more human-empowering online ecosystem. In particular:
- Individual End Users: demand more from the companies who handle your data.
- Companies: establish clear guidelines for promoting the best interests of ordinary users.
- Technologists: develop edge-centric technologies that serve ordinary end users.
- Entrepreneurs: launch products and services that give more control over personal data to ordinary end users.
- Policymakers: ask tough questions about why today’s internet lacks human autonomy and agency, and what we can do to change the situation.
- Get involved in the Oasis Network: Begin collaborating with a community committed to privacy, and get started building new technology to power data stewardship and responsible usage.
At the Oasis Foundation, we’re committed to supporting individuals and businesses alike who are actively promoting and building a new, responsible data society. If you’d like to learn more about the Oasis Network and our technology visit oasisprotocol.org.