What is happening to my data?
Although true control is limited in the digital age, our relationship with big tech and big media can be parasitic. During the mobile revolution, users traded away autonomy for convenience, and in hindsight, we should have looked deeper into the Terms of Service.
The New York Times unveiled the uncomfortable truth that millions of people are sharing data without their explicit consent constantly. Countless websites and social platforms have also been fined for the collection and sale of personal data to third parties — Meta being sued for $3.1 billion as a result.
TikTok is also unable to escape the heat, having been thrust into litigation over browser data harvesting — harvesting that could potentially land a social media user in court, especially with current political and social discourse. Perhaps even more unsettling, a user can be blocked from accessing their own data in these products or even losing that data on a whim through account suspensions or deletions.
Regardless of where one stands, it all boils down to autonomy. In the Web2 world, a user has limited control over what is done with their data — whether that be preserving privacy, permanence or access — but self-sovereignty has the power to change that.
What is self-sovereignty?
The term “self-sovereign identity” (SSI) surfaced in 2005 when Microsoft systems architect Kim Cameron described what a safe, secure data model should possess. Simply put, self-sovereignty is the concept of owning and controlling your online identity and arbitrating who can access that personal data. It also means that one’s data does not require a higher authority for validation or authentication. An Ethereum address can be self-sovereign because it can be generated without a higher authority and signatures can be validated without up-level approval.
Without self-sovereignty, large-scale systems can become fragile because larger systems fail in a void of authority. For example, a standalone, non-connected video game cartridge can be played on the console regardless of whether Nintendo exists, but modern games require signing into a server or receiving updates from an external source, which may become unavailable if that company goes under.
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Moving beyond Web2 infrastructures and toward self-sovereignty requires blockchain and cryptographic technologies. Unlike centralized systems, decentralization unlocks the value of emerging Web3 applications by granting individual control of one’s data, identities and credentials.
So, we have a potential solution to these issues. We’ll use blockchain technology to become self-sovereign and bestow control over how, when and where our personal information is shared online. Unfortunately, it’s not that simple.
Why should we care about sovereignty?
There are many examples of self-sovereignty in everyday life, especially in modern free society. If you go down the list of U.S. Constitutional Amendments, you will find that many are focused on protecting sovereignty.
The First Amendment affirms sovereignty over your own thoughts and right to express them, meaning you do not have to get approval from an authority to speak, and the Second Amendment affirms sovereignty over your own defense. The same can be said about the Fifteenth to Twenty-Sixth Amendments — affirming sovereignty as a citizen in a democracy.
Sovereignty is the most important concept in modern society, and often the most contentious, especially when one person’s sovereignty overlaps with another. So, why have we not adopted these plans online and how can we do that?
What can we do?
There are many reasons why companies should take accountability and bestow sovereignty to users, but the likelihood of it happening without legal intervention is low. Companies and entire industries are profiting from our data, and in spite of the high risk and frequent breaches, government support and wider adoption of Web3 are both a prerequisite to action.
Healthcare is one of the few industries with mediation to grant patient sovereignty at the state level. The state of Washington recently put forward a comprehensive bill called My Health My Data Act to protect residents’ health data and prevent the unknowing sale of it to third parties. This is where exploring and supporting Web3 technologies is a must. The promise and premise of Web3 can offer individuals peace of mind regarding the safety and security of data.
Making room for self-sovereignty
Given the importance of sovereignty and data today, it is not possible for people to be fully sovereign without entrusting sovereignty over their own data. Following suit, people’s sovereignty over their data requires their identity and data also be self-sovereign. With the wider adoption of technologies like artificial intelligence (AI), genetic modification and robotics, establishing self-sovereign lines becomes increasingly critical.
Centralized solutions like Web2 are fundamentally defined by authoritative control. One person or entity owns the system that stores and accesses the data, giving them full control of that data, regardless of what they pledge.
There are several obstacles to face with the adoption of Web3, from educating users to perfecting smart UX design. People have been interacting with the internet for too long to accept its pitfalls that assign them as pawns in Big Tech’s game.
There is a long road ahead when it comes to making self-sovereign data useful. The technology is still in its infancy and requires the construction of real-world infrastructure along with the adoption of new coding paradigms. Beyond making the technology function, it’s important to streamline UX to boost adoption and make decentralized networks more approachable.
Despite the most common discourse focused on Web3’s connection to blockchain or cryptocurrency, it’s really about sovereignty; and just like freedom, we must constantly strive for it lest we lose it.
Arie Trouw is the co-founder of XYO and founder of XY Labs.
This article was published through Cointelegraph Innovation Circle, a vetted organization of senior executives and experts in the blockchain technology industry who are building the future through the power of connections, collaboration and thought leadership. Opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of Cointelegraph.