Imagine that no one else can access your data but you. If a company wants your data, they’ll have to buy it. If they want to show you advertising based on your data, they will pay you to see it.
Don’t be surprised if companies such as Alphabet GOOG, +1.48% and Facebook FB, -0.09% make this happen. They can see a trend before it picks up steam. They may do this themselves or buy companies that do. Facebook recently announced that it will begin to move toward such a scenario.
You’ll have to protect your data yourself. But access to one’s own data already entails jumping through many hoops to enable the centralized database providers to protect it for you — and even then, it is not necessarily secure.
The overhyped internet bubble of the late 1990s is a good example. When it burst, many of the internet bubble’s “new age” companies disappeared. Then, out of the rubble, really did emerge a new age — of Amazon.com AMZN, +0.15% , Google (now Alphabet), Facebook, Uber, Airbnb, and other internet-based companies.
The more recent overhyped bubble was that of cryptocurrencies and blockchain — the computer technology that enables bitcoin BTCUSD, -0.55% Yet it could be that, as with the internet bubble, the blockchain bubble could lead to a disruptive new technology platform.
Beyond bitcoin, beyond blockchain, there is an underlying message: decentralization. Most data is currently highly centralized, stored in massive cloud-computing centers by companies including Alphabet, Amazon, Facebook, and Apple AAPL, +1.12% , as well as large banks, insurance companies, and retailers.
These centralized data repositories are increasingly vulnerable and sinister. The security of their data is more and more precarious, requiring more — and more time-consuming — password verification procedures to access. Even then, frequent cyberhacks result in stolen data.
Users of these repositories are realizing how much they are giving away for free to these companies, and how the data they give away is used in ways to which they would not normally consent.
Decentralization technologies are being quietly developed, and it is beginning to look like it could be fruitful. Companies such as Blockstack, formed by Princeton University engineering and computer science alumni, are planning to give internet users more ownership of their data. If this nascent trend catches on, it could completely transform the nature of the internet and internet-related activities.
The new age of the decentralized internet
If Blockstack’s work is successful and its vision comes true, everyone will own their own data locally. No one else — not even Google — will be able to access it. This will hold true even if it is Google itself that implements the decentralized Internet, or owns the technology.
How will this data be yours and yours alone, and no one else can access it without your permission? It will be encrypted. No one can decrypt it without your “private key.” (A private key is like a password, but not stored at any central location; only you will know it.)
Your own personal data will be, in effect, a patented technology. No one else can use it unless they pay you a fee. Each and everyone will own the patent to their own data. This will foil, for example, efforts to establish universal, centrally located facial recognition registries, because many people will not want to be in them, and they will have that choice (if it is not already too late).
This will completely change the nature of most apps. They will not have automatic access to all of your data. You can segment your data, and allow them to access only what you want — or none of it. Many new companies will emerge to organize and streamline the use of this new decentralized internet.
This may seem like only a small tweak to the applications that use the Internet now — as we know them — but like the last line of Robert Frost’s famous poem, “The Road Not Taken,” it will make all the difference.