Tim Berners-Lee and BBC stage data privacy project • The Register
Opinion Personal data is the oil of the Internet. The big engines of Facebook and Google are pumping it relentlessly, burning it at will to fuel their marketing monetization magic. The pollution it creates in shattered privacy, shattered politics and the corrupting force of hidden agendas is out of control.
One would think that the source of this data – which is us – might have a say in how it is used. A convenient way to control, monitor, decide who gets it and what to do with it. There are regulations, but do you feel protected by them? Are the cookie options not right for you? I did not mean it. We are the means of production, but we do not control it. It’s time for a revolution, comrades, but if business won’t help and regulators can’t, where do we look? What about the BBC?
The BBC has some weird quirks. He’s committed to making things better for his users – us again – and some parties take that very seriously. One of those parts is BBC R&D, a collection of world-class, albeit very small, engineers and innovators working on the technology behind screens and speakers. Nowadays that mostly means helping to create digital broadcasting standards, including everything online and the data that goes with it.
The BBC’s R&D found they didn’t like the way personal data was in the hands of the wrong people. It has stopped creating better public value from the internet, and the BBC is concerned about these things.
Public service broadcasting in the 21st century means public service internet. So in 2017 he started a project called Databox with the University of Nottingham, using ideas started by a cat called Sir Tim Berners-Lee, who apparently has a background here. Two years later, work began on prototypes and last week, BBC R&D published a report on what the early testers thought.
The idea is simple. You keep your personal data stored on a peripheral device that you control. It can be a phone app or a real device. It implements the three prongs of what’s called human data interaction, HDI, the philosophy at the heart of it all. These three ideas are: readability, agency and negotiation.
Readability says you need to be able to see and understand what your data is and what’s happening to it, including when it’s eaten up by pesky algorithms. The agency says you can control what data is kept and what happens to it – not just signing up and opting out, but how it’s collected and stored. You can change it and what inferences you allow to draw from it. Marketability says that you can see and control the social implications of your data usage, and be able to profit from them. Yes, you can say whatever you want in exchange for your data.
No matter what kind of super brain data ninja you are, these are not easily acquired powers – if at all – for the vast majority of personal data that you lose every time you do things online. Imagine what it would be like if you could. Berners-Lee calls it turning the world the right way and returning control not just to the ninjas but to everyone.
The first service tested is a recommendation engine that communicates with Spotify, Netflix and the BBC. It imports usage data from all three, then creates a unified media usage list and local profile that exports information to the services to allow them to suggest things you’d like to watch or hear. It doesn’t seem any different from what is happening now: the crucial part is that you are in control of what you store and send. Services get a better way to recommend content, but never see the full picture they would get if they shared that data with each other. You decide what they need to do their job, they don’t overdo it.
The researchers say the test audience who used the system – young people who don’t spend much time on the BBC in particular – were positive. Members of the public appreciated the control and visibility this gave them; they understood the need to manage personal data but did not understand how to do it. It unlocked that door. The purpose of the service – to make better recommendations – also worked.
So yes, content management is better. And? The point is, the HDI principles the BBC is testing here apply to all data – like the web itself, these are standards that don’t care what kind of data they process. Financial, behavioral, interpersonal, etc. – if someone makes money by abusing it, it can stop him.
If everything works, so what? Why would Facebook hand over the control panel of its oil wells to the oil itself? The researchers point out that there are many business models and applications that work well in the new system. More importantly, if new, usable standards are developed and adopted anywhere, they are available to users on demand – and for regulators to stipulate.
Tech regulation stinks when the market is ahead of regulators, who don’t have the resources or the knowledge to stay ahead of the pest behemoths. If the right tools are available, they will use them. And it can become the right tool.
We need a revolution that puts power in the hands of the people, but we probably don’t want to shoot the Tsar and his family. A more equitable sharing of power and value, more transparency and accountability, and the ability to say ‘no’ will be disruptive, but in the right way. It’s high time we asked Google to read our terms and conditions – and the world’s best public service broadcaster is on our side. Be rude not to do it. ®