Freedom unleashed: Americans deserve the right to own their data

Freedom in the modern age

Although America is penned “the land of the free,” our freedom comes with exceptions. While some of these restrictions are in the name of civilian safety, what’s happening online isn’t for the greater good — it’s just for lining Big Tech’s pockets and consolidating digital power to the few.

The constant exploitation and control Americans face online needs to be remedied. While politicians propose new bills to keep anti-competitive behaviors in check and wrangle giant tech corporations that have failed to protect consumer privacy, it doesn’t prevent our sovereignty from being taken away.

Our data is under siege. Whether it’s popular social media giants that are liable for improperly profiting from the sale of our user data while preventing access to that data by the very users who created it, or the hospitals that we trust with our lives are tracking our data and transferring it to third parties, nearly all of our online engagements present data and privacy concerns that infringe on our freedom and sovereignty.

The issue extends beyond intentional exploitation by companies due to fallible Web2 infrastructure, which makes our data susceptible to data breaches — of which there were over 612 million as of July 2023 alone. The digital landscape has become an extension of our day-to-day existence, but this online frontier isn’t truly free.

At the very least, Americans should be able to own the data they generate.

What is true freedom of personal data?

Most data privacy concerns boil down to ownership and control. Who can see my data and what can be done with it? Although consumers have the right to thoroughly review and decline the Terms of Service agreement, many fall victim to its confusing tactics. Whether it’s lengthy conditions, ambiguous sign-offs or gatekeeping access, companies know how to trick people into unknowingly signing away their freedom on a daily basis.

So what can we actually do? Swap the centralization for decentralization. While large companies are the main character of centralization models, decentralization puts users at the forefront, empowering them to control their own data through blockchain technologies such as zk-proofs. Decentralization promotes data freedom, improving security, privacy and overall user autonomy. This provides a paradigm shift from theauthoritative Web2 model to the sovereign model of Web3.

What obstacles hold us back?

Although decentralization is the clear answer to restoring our digital freedom, we cannot ignore the various hurdles keeping users from adopting it as an accessible mainstay.

Centralized systems are a large part of our societal framework, providing advantages in efficiency and resource management. As a result, many modern data platforms and services are centralized, collecting and controlling vast amounts of user data and creating more of a reliance on the centralization of power. Given this status quo, most users are truly unaware of how their data is being gathered, stored and utilized by online platforms. Controlling the masses is easily accomplished by showering them with free software and features that they can not live without, yet are unaware of how they become the product.

Other obstacles to decentralization include regulatory and technological challenges. The existing legal framework is largely designed to regulate centralized data systems and may not provide adequate protection for individuals’ data ownership rights. Regulators are used to having laws and regulations that tell centralized authorities what they won’t do. Yet, when there are no centralized authorities, and rules and protections use cryptography to set the rules for what participants can’t do, some may argue that these regulators may not be as needed. So, some would say they have a conflict of interest in maintaining the status quo. 

On the technical side, limitations and infrastructure challenges can impede the practical implementation of data ownership, plus interoperability issues between different systems can create barriers to seamless data-owned experiences. Switching to a decentralized cryptographic paradigm is technically challenging, especially when the incumbent powers actively prevent the shift for business and financial reasons.

Embracing centralization also requires changing consumer habits — a task most CEOs know to avoid like the plague. The prevalence of advertising-based revenue models incentivizes companies to collect and control user data, and users to demand free service, hindering the transition towards data ownership models. Over time, users have grown complacent in accepting the data security risks associated with signing up for Twitter or making a purchase online. Users will happily provide $10 worth of data and attention rather than $1 or actual currency in exchange for the services they desire.

Achieving data freedom

Luckily, politicians from both sides of the aisle are beginning to see the immense need for data privacy and sovereignty amid new technological advances. The Biden administration recently published the AI Bill of Rights to make automated systems work for the American people and not against them. DeSantis published his own Digital Bill of Rights shortly after, championing personal data control so users can stay more informed on what’s actually being done with their data. 

There are still many steps ahead on the road to achieving true data freedom and self-sovereignty. From receiving clearer guidance and legislation at the crypto level, to properly onboarding people to decentralized finance, to even creating approachable decentralized social media platforms and identity management systems, achieving data freedom is possible. However, it requires a lot of cooperation across several parties — parties who particularly benefit from the current state of things. 

But effective legislators recognize the importance of striking a balance between promoting innovation and safeguarding privacy. By advocating for comprehensive privacy laws, supporting research and development in decentralized systems and promoting public awareness, legislators can foster an environment conducive to the growth of a more free and secure internet.

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.

Is 2023 the year we’re able to take control of our data?

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.

Join the community where you can transform the future. Cointelegraph Innovation Circle brings blockchain technology leaders together to connect, collaborate and publish. Apply today

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.

Learn more about Cointelegraph Innovation Circle and see if you qualify to join

The need for real, viable data in AI

Artificial intelligence (AI) is undeniably a hot technology at the moment, with the industry projected to be worth $22.6 billion by 2025. Over the past year, everyday people saw AI-generated images and filters across social media as well as Open AI’s tools, ChatGPT and DALL-E, explode seemingly overnight. 

While AI shows significant signs of promise, it still has a long way to go before companies and consumers can seriously rely on it for important tasks. For example, ChatGPT is able to formulate text, but it is not advanced enough to be reliably accurate. The consumer publication, CNET, attempted to increase output by employing AI to write its articles, but the outlet has since issued massive corrections to its AI-written content.

At first glance, ChatGPT-making sloppy errors might not seem like the end of the world, but if we are going to leverage AI in life-or-death fields like medicine, it can’t afford to make any mistakes. To prevent catastrophe, leaders in the AI space need to collaborate with experts in other technology sectors to establish fail-safe methods to validate data and ensure that AI is providing accurate information.

The AI revolution

AI is poised to disrupt the technological landscape and positively impact multiple industries, from blockchain and fintech to healthcare. If used with integrity, AI could be as transformational as the internet was in the early 2000s. AI is limited only by the algorithms we create, the data we provide, and computing power. 

From predicting cancer risk to preventing insurance underwriting burnout, AI will transform how we gather information and make critical decisions. This emerging technology can even remove racial and gender bias, making the outcomes from employee recruitment more fair and equitable.

Join the community where you can transform the future. Cointelegraph Innovation Circle brings blockchain technology leaders together to connect, collaborate and publish. Apply today

Another way AI can help level the playing field is through AI-powered trading bots. Many retail investors tend to make rash decisions — often driven by emotion — when buying and trading stocks and cryptocurrencies. However, using a data-driven approach removes human bias and could level the playing field for more everyday investors to make smart investments and strategies.

The dark side of AI

While AI technology has real potential to streamline mundane processes and make our lives easier, there are serious drawbacks that need to be taken into consideration. Many are apprehensive about AI and feel that it could lead to a dystopian future.

The internet has long been associated with hoaxes, misinformation and scams. The phrase “Don’t believe everything you read on the internet” is ingrained in our culture. Unfortunately, AI could lead to even more misinformation on the internet and sway public opinion for the worse. Here’s a truly terrifying concept: deep fakes or digitally altered videos that look nearly identical to celebrities, politicians or whoever the person behind the algorithm wishes to mimic. Perhaps even more disturbing is an AI firm that recently created a service that allows people to “talk” to deceased loved ones.

Beyond eerie use cases, AI simply just might not be conducive to productivity yet. A Stanford study found that programmers who use AI produce bad code. If we are going to integrate AI into our workflows, it needs to be more efficient and accurate.

The potential of merging AI and blockchain

To avoid disastrous errors, AI should be merged with other technologies to be made more accurate. While still in its infancy, blockchain is particularly promising in validating data. Verifying data through blockchain networks can ensure that AI is computing accurate data to produce accurate products and results. Blockchain’s data permanence is also great for building training sets for AI. Additionally, storing decisions made by AI within a blockchain database ensures that auditing remains quick, easy and accurate.

Moreover, decentralized AI networks could prevent big tech from monopolizing AI, and in turn, establish more user trust. AI may also be able to harness the power of blockchain oracles, as oracles check data from multiple sources to ensure information is accurate. In an adjacent space, many NFT artists already utilize AI, and it’s exciting to see what’s on the horizon at the intersection of these two technologies.

AI has the potential to improve society for the better, but in parallel, comes with enormous risks if not executed correctly. AI technology is fragile, requiring checks and balances as well as human oversight. We must hold AI accountable to prevent an inaccurate and dystopian future.

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.

Learn more about Cointelegraph Innovation Circle and see if you qualify to join