As the Fair Data Society puts it, we are laborers in the data economy. Our personal data — basically, the digital blueprint of our lives — gets collected by platforms we interact with, most often in a non-transparent way. At best, it is used to improve our user experience. At worst, our privacy gets breached, monetized and even weaponized against us.
It all started with the emergence and growth of the user-generated web, as seemingly free social media networks, search engines and companies saw a new opportunity of profiting and went into the business of gathering, storing, analyzing and selling user data. By 2022, the data market had grown immensely. According to Statista, a total of 64.2 zettabytes of data had been created, consumed and put online worldwide by 2020. By 2025, this number is expected to exceed 180 zettabytes.
Talking about the evolution of data sovereignty in a profit-driven climate, professor Sabina Leonelli said:
“Individual agency in the data economy has shrunk, with a few organizations dominating the conditions under which information can be exchanged and used, to the detriment of individual rights and collective action.”
Indeed, over three-quarters of the global search market is under the control of the Google search engine and over 3.6 billion individual users across four social media platforms owned by Meta.
Course for data sovereignty
Big Tech companies recognized the pressure and increasing regulatory demand, so in 2018, the Data Transfer Project was born. Six contributors — Google, Microsoft, Apple, Twitter, Facebook and SmugMug — committed to enabling seamless data transfer among platforms via a common framework with open-source code. Still, it was just the first step toward users reclaiming their data.
In the past few years, the demand for transparency, trustlessness, security and decentralization has formed across multiple sectors of our life: from finance to organizational management to data storage. This is evident in the blockchain technologies and solutions such as decentralized finance, decentralized autonomous organizations and Web3, which aim to grant users full control over their digital lives and protect the basic human right to data privacy.
Related: DAOs are the foundation of Web3, the creator economy and the future of work
So, what are data sovereignty and radical data ownership — and how can they be achieved?
In a nutshell, achieving data sovereignty means the user takes full control over their data. They finally get to know (and have a say on) where it goes and what purposes it can be used for, while the data itself is not locked into a single platform. The advocates of this concept are aiming to create a new, fair digital space where information will be used for social good, and its value will be distributed in alignment with Web3 and Fair Data Principles, and there are a number of decentralized instruments that will help achieve that.
Web3: My keys, my data
One of the primary features of Web3 that makes it different from the web we know is the lack of centralized data repositories. Decentralized storages provide us with a single source of truth — the same as blockchain does, just for private and big data.
The use of protocols and a decentralized data layer will make it possible to encrypt and exchange information in a system of peer-to-peer networks, while content-based addressing makes sure that we know the data hasn’t been tampered with: When we download a chunk from a certain address, we know that this data is correct because its hash corresponds to the address.
Moreover, there’s no data sovereignty without data interoperability. As opposed to data monopolies, where users are locked into proprietary interfaces, Web3 is based on the idea of using noncustodial solutions. By using keys, users will be able to access the same set of their private data from multiple platforms (also known as BYOD) and move it freely among storages and apps.
The sign-up process will see changes, too. For one, we use email addresses to create accounts, or tie them to our Google adn Facebook profiles. In Web3, email credentials will be replaced with wallet addresses. “Sign in with Ethereum,” which is funded by the Ethereum Foundation and will probably become a standard, is a good example here. While all interactions with the blockchain are available for public viewing, logging in with an anonymous wallet address will help preserve confidentiality.
Meanwhile, builders and content creators will get access to new ways of monetizing their content. Tokens, both fungible and nonfungible, are the “likes” and “retweets” of Web3. These can be used to reward quality content and share pieces of data, all while making sure the creator gets a fair share of the royalties.
Related: The metaverse: Mark Zuckerberg’s Brave New World
And finally, as far as control over data is concerned, introducing decentralized governance is yet another way to topple the monopolistic power of Big Tech. Decentralized autonomous organizations have the potential to bring democracy and transparency to the decision-making process on the blockchain, as transactions are verified through consensus.
Bringing trust and privacy into the data economy
Achieving digital sovereignty means treating users as persons, not cogs in the data economy machine. To summarize the above, it can be achieved by building human-centric applications where data interoperability and data sovereignty are put first, incentivizing the development of the new web infrastructure that supports encryption, data protection and ethical, transparent business models. Of course, basic digital literacy would also reduce the chances of internet users unwittingly signing away their privacy.
Related: The data economy is a dystopian nightmare
As a closing note, it would be important to emphasize that this is a collaborative effort — one bigger than a single individual or organization — and the whole Web3 space should work together. This way, we can start reclaiming privacy for the individual and bringing trust into the data economy on a societal level.
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